Developing Assistive Tech

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I, by no means, speak on behalf of wheelchair users and I’m no expert. But last week, during my assistive tech class, we all experienced riding around locally in wheelchairs. We were given specific tasks: leave the classroom, try to get into a bathroom stall, enter an elevator and ride it to the ground floor, exit the building, get around in Washington Square Park and return to class.

This is an example of a task analysis (from “Task analysis is the process of learning about ordinary users by observing them in action to understand in detail how they perform their tasks and achieve their intended goals.”

The purpose of a task analysis is to:
1. Determine your users’ goals
2. Which users are successful achieving them
3. What experiences the users brings to the task
4. How their experience affects how they think about their work and the workflow they follow

The first thing I noticed during the task analysis was the height of the seat. It is adjustable, but it made me think of airplane seating- that you’re going to be there an extended amount of time and how shockingly uncomfortable the seat actually is.

I then realized that the push rim- the outer rim on the wheel in which the user pushes to propel the chair- is surprisingly close to the wheels. This caused my hands to become black from the dirt on the rubber wheel quite quickly.

Person sitting in a wheelchair presenting two palms face-up, showing soot on palms and tips of fingers.
After about 10 minutes using the push rim.

I wonder what the design purpose of putting them so close was? I’d imagine it was to preserve space, width-wise, because as you can see getting into spaces like a bathroom stall was extremely challenging. The width of a typical door jamb seemed spacious when walking, but gave me a jolt of cortisol, warning me to protect my knuckles, which easily banged into the sides of the frames. This foreboding feeling followed me through each doorway.

A woman, from the back, in a wheelchair entering a bathroom stall
This is as far as I was able to get into the stall.

You can even see that I’m about to bang up my elbows. I can’t imagine the stress this must cause the user. This bathroom was certainly not accessible. The sink was too high to reach the faucet, the soap was hung far up on the wall. We eventually gave up and decided to attempt to reach the park.

First, I tried to wheel forward into the elevator, but our instructor urged me to wheel backwards, since it’s much easier. She explained to us that riding in an elevator is much different for someone sitting than someone standing. Apparently, your stomach experiences the dropping sensation one feels on a roller coaster descent. I’ll admit, if it hadn’t been pointed out to me, I doubt I’d have noticed it- it was pretty subtle. It was only moving between a few floor, however. I can imagine it’d be more pronounced in a much taller building.

In order to exit the building our instructor had to open both doors and released the hinges to keep them that way. Opening one of the doors simply wasn’t enough space to exit in the wheelchair. As a highly sensitive person, I didn’t enjoy the extra attention and commotion it caused simply in order to leave school. I could imagine that to be extremely frustrating in day-to-day activities.

I was able to get to the park easily enough, but I quickly noticed that, once I was in the context of a busy, public space, my line of sight was much lower than people standing. I felt vulnerable and on a plane of less power. People either stepped around you, eager to get where they were going and get out of your way. Or stare, briefly and out of curiosity. It felt impossible to blend in.

On the way back to NYU, I felt firsthand, what was explained to me as a sloping New York City sidewalk. Our sidewalks are sloped down towards the street to prevent building flooding. This goes unnoticed by people walking, but when you’re in a wheelchair it causes the user to use their street-side arm more vigorously. In fact, in order to wheel straight, I needed only to wheel with my street-side arm. It tired quickly and I immediately understood why wheelchair users often switch sides of the street intermittently to preserve energy and work both arms equally.

I was in the chair for all of 15 minutes. I eventually got up and switched places with my partner. The task analysis revealed many issues with the chair itself and the surroundings. There are two models when we talk about disability:

Medical model: It’s the problem of the person with the disability to navigate the world.

Social model: It’s the problem of society to design the world to accommodate everyone.

The latter is where my design practice falls. There have been attempts at wheelchair design. This summer I visited Access+Ability at The Cooper Hewitt where I was able to see some beautifully executed attempts.

This was designed by Elizabeth DePoy in 2014. It was originally meant to be used by the designers, it inspires mobility on many different types of terrain. It also promotes good posture, strength, and endurance.

A 3 wheeled wheelchair design that looks more like a 3-wheeled bicycle with turquoise handles and a steel frame

Stryker Medical designed the following chair. It’s a 2011 reimagining of the traditional hospital transport chair. Issues considered: the patient and hospital staff comfort, transference of patients and equipment, the patient falling, sterility, back strain on the staff, storage, lost parts, and theft.

Blue, light grey, and yellow plastic wheelchair with a long vertical yellow hook in the rear, and blue arm rests and handles for the person pushing the chair. The wheelchair has remarkably small light grey wheels and blue foot rests.

This racing chair was designed by Designworks Los Angeles Studio in 2016. They designed in collaboration with Paralympic athletes. Pain points considered: aerodynamics and ergonomics, cockpit, and steering arm (customized using 3D scanning). It helped them win a bronze, silver, and gold.

Aerodynamic wheelchair design with two large, parallel black wheels, a red, white and blue small seat and a small black third wheel in the front. The design is triangular, elongated, and low to the ground.

Finally, I found the redesign of the 1969 wheelchair icon to be much more in tune with how a wheelchair user might want to be seen by society. It is also open source.

Redesign of the traditional logo, white stick figure and wheels, blue background. The new one is more dynamic, with the wheelchair user angled forward to suggest motion. The wheels have slits in them to also suggest fast forward rotation. The hands and arms are back behind the body about to use the push rims.

I’ll end with two questions: if we design and customize our cars to help define our identities, why not our wheelchairs?

Can we move from talking about disability to talking instead about impairment?

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