In 2013, the University’s Services for Students with Disabilities said almost five percent of the student population identified as disabled. And despite the 2,100 students registered with SSD, Associate Architecture Prof. Robert Adams said disability is still a taboo topic.
The Design Meets Disability Clinic, sponsored by the Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning and the English Department highlighted the need for more inclusive technology and product design for people with disabilities.
“It’s important that the conversation takes place in the university, an environment that still allows one to explore things that are maybe unpopular, not in vogue, not always on other tables as they should be,” Adams said.
The two-day clinic gave students and faculty the opportunity to discuss these needs and featured a lecture from Graham Pullin, the course director of Digital Interaction Design at the University of Dundee in Scotland and author of the book “Design Meets Disability.”
The symposium emphasized how alternative methods of design should not be seen as a chore, but as a way for designers to think innovatively. Participants also discussed how design geared toward the disabled has the potential to benefit everyone.
During the clinic’s discussion, a conversion service translated every spoken word into text. This text was projected onto a screen as the conversation took place.
“This is a good example of disability as a cultural knowledge producer because even if no one around this table would identify as ‘needing’ that, I have needed it multiple times today to catch a reference that someone had said that I didn’t get the first time,” Rackham student Joshua Kupetz said.
Adams, who helped coordinate the event, said personal experience sparked his interest in the relationship between disability and design. Ten years ago, his daughter was diagnosed with muscular dystrophy, a condition he also has, but in a milder form.
Struggling with this diagnosis, Adams was inspired to think of disability as a creative practice.
“It changed everything, and it got me excited about the work I could do as a result of thinking through that,” he said.
Pullin added that disability-sensitive design could improve existing design practices.
“Discourse within disability can actually radically disrupt notions of what design is as well, not in a sanctimonious way but in a creative, expanding way,” Pullin said.
Adams’ interest in disability-sensitive design is reflected throughout Taubman College. Two years ago, a new program was created that allows students pursuing a Master of Science in Architecture to choose a concentration in Design and Health. The unique interdisciplinary program allows students to consider medicine, psychology and the humanities alongside design.
Taubman graduate student Xuan Fei, who is concentrating in Design and Health, is working to design a space for children with disabilities that is both accessible and enjoyable. Fei said her goal is for these children to be integrated with their peers rather than be made to feel different.
Education graduate student Jason DeCamillis, who is legally blind, reiterated Fei’s concerns about spaces that segregate the disabled.
“I’m interested more in the similarities between people, not the differences,” DeCamillis said. “For me, it’s that these notions of difference and ability and disability are all created and perpetuated in schools.”
Adams noted that the University is not always conducive to those living with disabilities.
In particular, Adams criticized the narrow doorways in many campus buildings that are difficult to pass through for those in wheelchairs, and the poor placement of elevators in far-flung areas of campus buildings.
“I think our campus is littered with all these instances of soft discrimination, it seems, against people with disabilities,” Adams said.