Designing with disability matters

Why we’re co-designing with the blind and low vision community.

Lauren Fox
Jul 27, 2018 · 6 min read

Disabled people are too often the recipients of design. To put it another way: Too often, products are designed for people with disabilities. The fact is, these products would be more successful and beneficial if they were created in collaboration with the disabled community.

In The New York Times, Liz Jackson, founder of the Disabled List and advocate for designing with disability, described people with disabilities as the “original life-hackers.” And after working with the blind and low-vision community this summer, we couldn’t agree more. It’s very clear that people with disabilities have some untapped design chops—they have spent their lives designing hacks for themselves and have the best understanding of how to deal with their disability.

Here are just a few shining examples:

1. Have you heard of FingerWorks? Let’s rephrase that. Have you heard of the iPhone?

FingerWorks was a gesture recognition technology company that was developed at the University of Delaware by Wayne Westerman and John Elias, who was Westerman’s advisor during his dissertation. Westerman suffered from carpal tunnel syndrome and struggled with traditional keyboards. FingerWorks and the TouchStream keyboard came about as the solution, but the company has created several other gesture recognition products and was acquired by Apple in 2005. Their technology was ultimately integrated into, you guessed it, the first iPhone.

Image: FingerWorks is most known for developing the TouchStream keyboard.

2. Do you ride a bike?

Stephan Farffler, was a paraplegic watchmaker who invented the manumotive carriage in 1655 which was the very first self-propelled wheelchair. Eventually, the wheelchair became the precursor to the modern-day bicycle that we all know and love.

Image: The manumotive carriage, designed by Stephan Farffler.

3. What about OXO kitchen utensils?

After seeing his arthritic wife struggle to hold a vegetable peeler, Sam Farber, wanted to do better. Farber didn’t understand why kitchen tools weren’t designed for comfort and ultimately started OXO. He made a commitment to creating kitchen tools, starting with a peeler, that would be easier for his wife to use. OXO now sells a wide array of products and utensils that change the way we think about everyday tools and has set the standard for Universal Design.

Image: The evolution of the design of OXO’s famous peeler, beginning with the peeler that first inspired Sam Farber to establish the brand.

Our point here is that it’s pretty difficult to design something for someone whose experiences you aren’t able to directly—or even indirectly—identify with. Given that, why do designers create solutions and services for people with disabilities when the members of the community could be co-designers in the participatory design process?

Inspired by the above examples, and because no one on our team is blind or has a severe vision impairment, we wanted to find a way to involve this community in our design process so we hosted a workshop.


As a group of able-bodied designers working on a project that focuses on the blind and low-vision community, we were not qualified to go through the design process without working directly with designers and people who are blind or visually impaired. While we did have the opportunity to sit down with many visually impaired or blind people to talk through some of the pain points that exist in their daily lives, we still wanted the opportunity to co-design with the blind and low-vision community.

With this in mind, we hosted an ideation session at a local library. We were excited to jump right into planning the workshop but we had a ton to learn beforehand. As sighted designers, we’re used to understanding content visually through methods such as sketching or physical prototyping. We took some time to learn how someone with vision impairment understands visual content through tactile means.

Workshop preparation

In the weeks leading up to the workshop, we visited the library to learn more about tactile graphics software, like TactileView, a digital drawing tool that creates touchable, embossed drawings. We also experimented with physical embossing tools such as the E.A.S.Y. Tactile Graphics Drawing Tool and the Sensational Drawing Board. Learning about these tools taught us how people who are blind and low vision understand visual content but also informed the materials we decided to use in our co-ideation session for low-fidelity, rapid prototyping.

Image: An interior tactile map of the Oculus at the World Trade Center. The map was created using a software called TactileView and contains Braille labels.

The workshop

The workshop we conducted was organized like a very quick a design sprint — with an aim to solve complex problems through interpersonal interviews, ideation, and rapid prototyping with low-fidelity materials. We chose to focus on mobility challenges in New York City, and more specifically, the “last-mile” challenges like finding a subway platform or a product in a store.

We collaborated with 11 people who shared different backgrounds. After learning a bit about each other and our experiences, split into pairs and prompted participants to tell each other about their everyday commute (e.g. How’d you get here? How do you plan your trips?) for about five minutes. After, each person shared with the larger group and talked about what they had learned about their partner. From there, each participant chose a problem to design a prototype around. We told them that their prototypes should be sort of crazy, futuristic, and not necessarily feasible today.

Using Legos and modeling clay they came up with some wild ideas and then shared their solutions—who they were specifically for and what specific problem it would solve—back with the group.

Image: A pair of hands using legos and modeling clay to prototype solutions from our workshop.

Some of the ideas that came out of the session were responsive sidewalks that vibrate to let pedestrians know to get out of the way, a wand that can detect and describe different types of light to a user, haptic shoes, and more.

What we learned

Through working with the blind and low-vision community, we were able to identify certain pain points that we hadn’t considered previously. Most importantly, we gained a better understanding of what our users need in order to design a successful wayfinding system.

One of the most important principles we walked away with: When you design for users with disabilities, you actually end up making better products and services for everyone, not just people with disabilities.

Every summer, interns at Moment (which is now part of Verizon) solve real-world problems through a design-based research project. In the past, interns have worked with concepts like autonomous vehicles, Google Glass, virtual reality in education, and Voice UI.

For the 2018 summer project, the premise is to design a near-future product or service that improves mobility for people with disabilities using granular location data and other contextual information.

Darshan Alatar Patel, Lauren Fox, Alina Peng, Chanel Luu Hai and Alexis Trevizo are interns at Moment/Verizon in New York. Darshan is pursuing an MFA in Interaction Design from Domus Academy in Milan, Lauren is an incoming junior at Washington University in St. Louis pursuing a BFA in Communication Design, Alina is pursuing a BA in Philosophy, Politics and Economics (PPE) with a Design Minor at the University of Pennsylvania, Chanel is pursuing an MFA in Design & Technology at Parsons School of Design, and Alexis is pursuing a BS in Integrated Digital Media at NYU. They’re currently exploring the intersection of mobility challenges and technology in urban environments. You can follow the team’s progress this summer on Momentary Exploration.

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