‘88 a Watershed Year : Products for Disabled Growing Fast in Scope

If you’re making do with a chair you can’t get out of, a faucet you can’t turn on or any number of home products that don’t make allowances for an aging body, hang on.

American industry may be coming to the rescue in the foreseeable future, and 1988 may eventually be known as the year attitudes began to change toward physical disability.

Several recent examples indicate growing interest in harnessing technology to permit an active life style, even for those with disabilities. Products such as sports equipment, wheelchairs, crutches and ingenious utensils were shown this year in a museum exhibition and a product catalogue.

Although the current beneficiaries of specialized products are those with disabilities, ultimately there can be substantial benefits for the non-disabled population, said Cara McCarthy, curator of “Designs for Independent Living,” a recent exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art.


In the meantime, there appears to be a growing acceptance of an active life style for those with physical impairments.

19,000 Phone Inquiries

The IBM Corp., for example, reports increasing use of a toll-free telephone number offering information on new technology for those with impairments.

IBM received more than 19,000 phone inquiries in 1987, after setting up the clearinghouse at the end of 1985, said Rita Black, a spokeswoman who added that an estimated 36 million Americans suffer some form of disability.


Whereas the gradual aging of the American population may be one factor in what some authorities see as a greater acceptance of disabilities, another motive is that “businesses have become aware they are losing a tremendous resource by not accommodating themselves to people with disabilities,” Black said.

According to Jordan Bienenstock, co-founder of Maneuverability, a Brooklyn retailer of “self-help” housewares, the number of special home products available for those with disabilities appears to be on the increase.

Some of the 90 or so products featured in the company’s mail-order catalogue include a voice activator that works off household current to turn on and off lamps and home entertainment components, easy-grasp cutlery and a variable-height sink.

Peter Axelson, a designer of wheelchairs and ski equipment, said that many new products and techniques make it possible for even a severely disabled person to live an active life.

A little more than a decade ago, when he wanted to renew an active life after an accident resulted in the amputation of his limbs, he found he had to design the equipment he wanted.

“In the past 12 years there have been substantial improvements: lightweight wheelchairs made mobility easier; health care techniques made us healthier; computers have enhanced the ability to work and sports equipment has made recreation possible. We are now at the point where the technologies are available, but we need rehabilitation services to assist people,” he said.

“The biggest problem of many individuals who want to be more active is gaining access to information and training in the use of the new products and in finding the money to pay for them,” Axelson added.

One indication that this issue is about to enter the mainstream was the recent exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art, “Designs for Independent Living.”


Designing Environments

Instead of thinking of disabled individuals as people who must lead sedentary lives, the emphasis is on designing environments to help them be as active and independent as possible, curator McCarthy said.

About 45 products for use in the home were shown, including mobility equipment such as wheelchairs and walkers, communication aids, clothing and household items, including sculpted cane handles and eating utensils and gadgets for people with limited hand strength.

McCarthy said the exhibit was a natural outgrowth of the increase in aids for the disabled.

“There has been a definite change since the early 1980s when products tended to be makeshift and unsuited to mass production,” she said.

Today, by contrast, professional industrial designers are getting involved in new-product development for this growing market segment, she said.

Greater Design Latitude

One of the most dramatic changes in thinking about disabilities is in the area of mobility, McCarthy said. “Instead of thinking of the wheelchair as a seat, we think of it as a means of transportation.”


The change began in the 1970s when the rules for wheelchair sports were modified to permit greater design latitude in the chairs. Using bicycle technology in some cases and spurred on by athletes who wanted a more competitive vehicle, designers were able to produce faster, lighter and more portable and maneuverable wheelchairs which in turn influenced the design of everyday wheelchairs, the curator added.

McCarthy sees it as a hopeful sign for everyone that designers are now studying human needs before they formulate product prototypes.

(The toll-free phone number for IBM’s National Support Center for Persons with Disabilities is 800-IBM-2133. For a copy of the Maneuverability catalogue, phone toll-free: 800-522-1213.)