By: Anaiss Arreola
In the summer of 2019, after a long eight years, I finally went down a waterslide. I went to the edge of the stairway, looking up at the spiral of steps stretching one story up above me, took a deep breath, and began the climb. It’s not that I’m afraid of heights or don’t like slides — quite the opposite, actually. I love waterslides. Eight years ago, I was involved in a car accident that left me in a wheelchair with a spinal cord injury and scoliosis. I was seven years old. I’m fifteen today. That day this summer, with the help of my friends, I was determined. I bumped myself up each stair, one by one, and after what felt like forever, I was finally able to go down the slide. Ten minutes of crawling up steps just for ten seconds of excitement — it was a joyous day.
There was an accessibility seat that could help me get into the jacuzzi if I wanted to. I couldn’t help but wonder: why wasn’t there a reasonable way for me to get up the waterslide? Is it because most wheelchair users aren’t seen as people who would want to go down waterslides? I, like other kids my age, love waterslides and the fact that I couldn’t go down it without struggling, opened my eyes to the many inaccessible things in our world. Those of us living with a disability are a minority that isn’t always visible to the majority of abled people.
Design and disability have long been at odds with one another, and understandably so. ADA requirements for buildings are stringent and can be challenging for architects to meet. I’ve learned about requirements like a five-foot turning radius in a bathroom, or long entrance ramp that might make it difficult for a building to offer other needs. An industrial or interaction designer is expected to design a product or service that “sells” — and people living with disabilities are a minority compared to the general population (12.8% according to the 2017 Disability Statistics Annual Report). It is hard to justify catering to that seemingly narrow demographic. But think of the many people who have temporary disabilities: Broken legs, back pain, and any kind of short term illness that might require help with mobility. A more accessible environment helps those people as well.
Most products made specifically for people with disabilities, on the other hand, usually originate from the medical industry. These products need to have a high level of quality and functionality out of necessity. With the notable exception of eyeglasses, most products tend to look “medical” and denote an identity of the user as a “patient.” Design in this context is often regarded as frivolous and outside of what is medically necessary. The sale of assistive devices is driven by necessity and medical recommendation rather than consumer choice or preference.
When was the last time that you thought about grabbing a cup from an upper cabinet in your kitchen? For most people, probably not since you were a child who was too small to be able to reach it. For most wheelchair users, myself included, an upper shelf is out of our reach. We must rely on someone to help us or find a different solution. Because I wanted to do this simple task independently, I designed and created a wheelchair lift so I can reach the cups and plates with ease. It’s a little block that I can roll my wheelchair on top of and rock up on to safely gain a couple more inches of height.
Living in an inaccessible world, many people with disabilities are faced with a choice: we can live a life of dependence on others, or design and hack our way to independent living. What would our lives look like if the design industry had considered us in the first place?
Design is just starting this trend towards inclusion — but it still has a long way to go. Companies like Microsoft and Nike recognize that a product which is more accessible to some, is easier to use by all. In her book Mismatch, Kat Holmes describes how designing for people with permanent impairments (such as living with one arm) not only serves that demographic but also serves people who have temporary impairments (like a broken arm) or situational impairments (like holding a pile of books or a baby). In the end, it improves businesses’ bottom line by increasing market share and improving customer experiences, not to mention inviting new approaches and innovations by redefining the target users. While those of us who are disabled rely on plenty of workarounds in our daily lives — and we are more determined and creative for it — it can be very disempowering to see how infrequently we are considered or represented as a part of the general population.
I am just learning to drive, and I could not be more excited for the independence it will give me. I, like other 15-year-olds, want to be able to hang out with my friends without worrying about fitting into their house, fitting into their car, or even fitting in generally without people staring. I want to live independently.
I’m not willing to sit back and hope that the world becomes more inclusive on its own. I know some companies are interested in making this shift towards inclusion but aren’t sure how, and our demographic (kids with physical disabilities) can be a challenge to get ahold of. For the design ecosystem to change, we need more people with disabilities to be involved in the design process as designers, not just as end-users. Because of this, some friends and I recently started a consultancy group called Make Just Right, to help create the world we want to live in. We are a group of young designers who are providing evaluation and design feedback on products and services — like a focus group or user testing, but able to go deeper and get involved much earlier on in the process. In the world we’re creating, people with disabilities are included, represented, and fully contributing members of society.
We are doing what we can, and we need more designers to step up and shift their perspective towards inclusion. It’s time for designers to consider diverse perspectives (race, ability, etc.) from the very beginning — not as an afterthought or ignored completely. We want our voices to be heard and your products to be inclusive.
Even as people with more diverse backgrounds are entering into the design world, there are still a lot of invisible boundaries that underrepresented populations face. We need more diversity — of all kinds — in the design profession. It can only happen through mentorship, hiring, and opening up more opportunities for underrepresented populations to enter the design industry.
These shifts are already happening, and they are the future of design. We need more people at the forefront with us to help push design forward — towards inclusion. Not only is this better for businesses, but it’s better for everyone. Your future self, when you’re old and grey and losing your mobility, will thank you.