All Technology Is Assistive

Six design rules on “disability”

The Eameses’ unpainted wood splint, curved at its edges to keep the leg from falling off, with a targeted set of slots and holes for tying secure restraints. Bottom image courtesy of Hive.
A classic model of an Eames recliner and ottoman, each with an understructure of molded stained wood, highlighting the curve of the grain around its edges, and black leather upholstery.
Patient Marc Andre Duc wears a cap with electrodes next to a computer during a presentation of brain-machine interface by the Swiss Federal Institutes of Technology of Lausanne (EPFL) in 2013.
A chart of a classical bell curve, this one measuring “the severity of language disorders.” Standard scores, as usual, fall into the widest part of the curve.
A man in an office environment moves easily among computer screen, keyboard, headphones, and smart phone.
The “Ekso,” a commercially available wearable exoskeleton, designed to encase the length of the body in a harness for support and augmented strength. It has enabled some wheelchair users to walk upright.

Invisibility is overrated.

A woman wears a necklace that falls from the back of her ears to form a lariat-style pendant beneath her collarbone.
A woman wears a jewel-like hearing aid, similar in size and shape to an earbud, draped around the back of the head with thin, elegant wiring.

Rethink the default bodily experience.

Georgia Tech researchers use a digital tongue receptor as a control device

Consider fine gradations of qualitative change.

Left: A molded wood perch or chair, with curvilinear strands that welcome a sitter and a body that attaches to a telephone pole or streetlight. Right: The same Wanderest perch, this time with a human sitter in it.

Uncouple medical technologies from their diagnostic contexts.

Boxy upholstered chairs include square, arm-like extensions that press inward from the chairs’ edges — here embracing a young sitter.

Design for one.

Left: A close-up view of white-and-dark-stained wood miniature sewing machines, each complete with “needle” and swatch of fabric. Right: A woman smiles in front of her own sewing machine and three small machine avatars that activate when her former colleagues are also sewing.

And this is perhaps the most important: Let the tools you make ask questions, not just solve problems.

Left: A woman “trains” her fingers in the power gesture, with the metal tool braced between each finger tip, with nested holes for each digit. Right: A woman wears the Guarded Gesture, “necklace” of thick silver wire that ends in two curved resting bowls for her crossed forearms.


Mining the tech world for lively and meaningful tales and analysis.


    Sara Hendren

    Written by

    Fellow at New America. Artist, Designer, and Researcher in Residence at Olin College. Design / prosthetics / adaptive technologies / interdependence. @ablerism


    Mining the tech world for lively and meaningful tales and analysis.