January 23, 2018

Assistive Technology & UD, Part II: Physical


When an able-bodied person thinks about disability, it’s physical disability that comes to mind for most. A whole range of physical limitations blurs into a blue and white symbol of a person in a wheelchair, special parking spaces near entrances, and the odd cavernous feeling bathrooms. This oversimplification misses the extent to which we all cope with degrees of physical limitations at different times. It misses how much universal design and assistive technology can help us at those times. It misses the frequent opportunities our innovators and designers have every day to make every product and environment a little more accessible.

To think of physical disability and all its various conditions can also be overwhelming. It’s anything that affects a person’s motor skills be it a limb, muscle or nerve. It can be there from birth, congenital, or acquired during life through an injury, disease or simply aging. It can be temporary or permanent, chronic or sudden. It can be minor and managed with nearly no hardship, or it can require every ounce of energy and focus. It can be very expensive. One’s surroundings will either make the task at hand more difficult, or less.

A focus of this blog mini-series is remembering just how much the surrounding environment, or design of a product, gives us our definitions of disability. It is often not our own limitations but our surroundings that determine if we will be stigmatized and by how much. I am able-bodied (for now) but to a mountain goat, I still have no business on a mountainside; products and environments need not be like a treacherous mountainside.

Another point to reminder is that the design changes that will effectively make fewer people “disabled” are here – they’ve already been thought up, tested and approved. It’s our mindset that has to change; it is less and less a concern of technological prowess and more and more about attitude.

Small example, entrance steps. We’ve been looking at entrance steps for so long a home looks strange without them. At one time they were necessary to keep rain water from entering a home. Today there are many ways to achieve that same goal and have a zero-step entry. Nor is there any burdensome cost associated with a zero-step entry. Quite simply, it’s our heads we have to retrain – everything else is already resolved.

Universal design is the big umbrella that makes more things more usable for more people and thereby makes more places accessible. Assistive technology is part of that, however, the less it is a specialty item needed by one individual, the better for us all. At some point, we are all disabled. It is then that we all want to feel as included and welcome as when we sailed about in our able-bodied selves.

For products, go to the Assistive Devices & Technology page.


Six Part Assistive Technology Series, COMIN UP:

  • Assistive Technology & UD, Part I: What Is It – September 13, 2010
  • Assistive Technology & UD, Part II: Physical
  • Assistive Technology & UD, Part III: Hearing Loss
  • Assistive Technology & UD, Part IV: Vision Loss
  • Assistive Technology & UD, Part V: Communication, Intellect & Development
  • Assistive Technology & UD, Part VI: Conclusion