(Image description: Illustration with pale yellow background. One female figure in the front wearing a blue hijab with orange and blue clothing. There is a illustration on the right of a figure with short hair and blue clothing in a wheelchair. There is a third figure on the left, with a pony-tail and red clothing.)

When Empathy Isn’t Enough

Designers need to go beyond empathy to include the disabled community as participants in design solutions.

frog design
Dec 19, 2018 · 5 min read

By Shaina Garfield, Industrial Design Intern, frog

The Disability Design Panel was hosted by Shaina Garfield in frog’s New York studio. Video with closed captioning above.

In 2015, I was diagnosed with a chronic illness that I thought I would heal from within a few months. Years passed and I did not heal. At points, I was unable to walk and needed a cane, yet I refused to consider myself disabled. I was embarrassed by the thought of it. However today, nearly four years later, I am proud to identify with such an amazing community.

Being a disabled designer has given me given unique skills to see the built world in a different way, because it has not been designed for disabled people. To explore these perspectives, I joined the WITH Fellowship, a program that facilitates design with the disability community by partnering disabled creatives in top design studios.

During my fellowship at frog’s New York studio, I focused on bringing the disability design conversation into the workplace. The culmination of my fellowship was a panel discussion I moderated about designing with disability. Our panelists included Liz Jackson, disability advocate and founder of The Disabled List and the WITH Fellowship; Shannon Finnegan, artist and graphic designer whose work focuses heavily on disability; and Tucker Viemeister, esteemed Industrial Designer who created the inclusive OXO Good Grips and helped open frog’s New York studio. Here are some of the insights and learnings that came out of our discussion:

Talk About Language

(Image description: Illustration with a pale blue background. There are drawings of different heads inside many blue circles.)

Perception is Important

(Image description: Illustration with pale yellow background. There are four figures, all sitting down. One of the figures is sitting in a wheelchair.)

Go Beyond Empathy

Just Be Thoughtful

(Image description: Illustration with pale pink background. There are two people talking to each other. The figure on the left is sitting in a wheelchair, talking to a figure standing on the right.)

As we discovered from our evening of lively discussion and debate, disabled people are hungry to be a part of the process in the creation of their world. We want to be seen as equal participants, rather than pitied recipients. As designers, let us strive to provide these platforms for disabled people. While we are designing, we must pause and remember to challenge our biases. We must start thinking about disability from the inception of a project, rather than just a checklist at the end. These tenants will provide designers with an incredible opportunity to make a positive impact on society, no matter what they are designing.


Shaina is a disabled designer who has been given unique perspectives and passion to make the world more inclusive and empathetic. She has a background in Industrial Design and Sustainability studies. Currently, Shaina is an Industrial Design intern at frog, completing a WITH fellowship where she is facilitating the disability design conversation.

Illustrations made using Humaaans, an open source design library by Pablo Stanley.

frog Voices

Thoughts on design from frogs around the world

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frog is a global design and strategy firm. Learn more about us: http://frogdesign.com/ | IG frog_design

frog Voices

Thoughts on design from frogs around the world

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