It’s no secret that I LOVE wheelchairs! I love looking at them, talking about them, tinkering with them, and of course using them. I even wrote love letters to them in Backstage In Biscuit Land and I particularly enjoyed hearing other mobility-aid users laughing knowingly when the letters were read out.
Using a chair has dramatically improved my quality of life. Not only does the right chair have an impact on what I can do, it also affects how I feel from day to day. When the BBC asked me what my Image of Freedom was, I chose… wheelchairs.
My love of wheelchairs, design, and disability culture means I pay close attention when new mobility aids are profiled in the media. Often though, rather than feeling excited by the aesthetics, ingenuity and potential of a new product, I’m left feeling dejected by designs that seem to be based more on assumptions about disability than on lived experience.
These impractical designs are then celebrated in the press and on social media and end up winning awards! Seeing this happen over and over again is particularly frustrating because I know first-hand how powerful good design can be – my current wheelchair fits me so well that I feel like a gymnast when I use it. And it folds down small enough to fit in the overhead locker on an aeroplane, (not that I’m travelling much at the moment!)
Good design is life-changing and has a key role to play in shaping a more accessible and socially just world. But when designers create disability-related products without understanding the real barriers disabled people experience, the solutions they come up with can be impractical at best, and at worst, unhelpful or unsafe.
When bad designs are celebrated, it usually falls to disabled people to call this out and explain the issues. I find this exhausting, and I know I’m not alone. Disability advocate and design strategist Liz Jackson coined the term ‘Disability Dongle’ which she defines as “A well-intended elegant, yet useless solution to a problem we never knew we had.”
Every year, design competitions and social media accounts showcase a fresh crop of disability-related products, like Segway style wheelchairs or gloves that translate sign language which get lots of attention but rarely come to market or offer disabled people anything practical.
For some reason it seems like there are more ‘Disability Dongles’ getting attention than ever. In the last month alone we’ve had: ‘walking wheelchairs’, ‘exoskeletons’ and a taxi on legs that looks more like an alien ready to take you to the mothership than a cab to take you to the shops! I don’t want to stop being interested in design, but neither do I want to keep seeing my body presented as a problem that non-disabled designers have ‘heroically’ solved.
Of course, there are incredible disabled designers, academics and podcasters who are supporting work that puts disabled people and our experiences at the centre. This makes sense and offers the best long-term strategy for improving the industry, but it will take time to make an impact, and I for one want to see positive change now!
All this got me thinking about the questions I’d ask if I was a design journalist, judge or design curator trying to identify Disability Dongles before they’re given a platform on social media.
All my questions are influenced by the Social Model of disability – if this isn’t something you’ve come across before, please do learn about it. You can read what I’ve written about it here and here or watch this video of disabled people explaining what it is and why it’s important.
Disability-Centred Design or Disability Dongle? Questions to Consider
1) Is the product created by a design team that includes people with lived experience of the barriers the product addresses?
A key issue that lots of Disability Dongles have in common is a lack of disabled authorship or even involvement in their design. Disabled people’s involvement should be more than just tokenistic testing or a one-off focus group – it should be embedded in every stage of the process. If I were assessing a design where this wasn’t clear, I’d follow up by asking the design team to explain how people with lived experience had shaped the product. I would only give a platform to disability-related products that disabled people had been meaningfully involved in developing.
2) How many people with lived experience have identified a need for this product?
Often Disability Dongles are attempting to solve assumed issues rather than addressing the actual priorities of disabled people. Even if real barriers are identified, disabled and non-disabled people might solve them in very different ways. For example in an article about the inspiration for the ‘walking wheelchair’, architect Suzanne Brewer cited a wheelchair user trying to get served at a bar as an example of why the product was needed. I’d argue that rather than creating an expensive piece of equipment that only addresses this issue for a specific individual, all bars should have a lowered area so that anyone who needs it has an accessible option.
The assumptions of non-disabled people or the experience of a single disabled person are unlikely to be enough to be sure a product solves a substantial issue. Before giving a new product a platform, I’d want to be convinced it successfully addressed a genuine need.
3) Have the disabled people who’ve contributed to this product been paid or credited for their input?
Disabled people’s expertise is valuable and should be appropriately recognised. Historically it’s been assumed that disabled people should share their knowledge freely and for the good of others. This doesn’t seem right to me – exactly what arrangements look like will differ from project to project, but in my view there should be parity between different types of expertise and skill. This means disabled contributors should be paid or credited in line with others involved in the development process. If it’s not clear, I’d check with the design team and I’d only give a platform to designs that had been developed equitably.
4) Have people who might use this product said that it’s unhelpful?
While I wouldn’t expect a design team to give details of negative criticisms in the description of their products, I would expect them to explain what testing they’d done, who the product is for, and any areas still in need of work or development. I’d also check online for any community feedback. Several Disability Dongles have received awards despite well documented concerns about them. Ignoring disabled people’s feedback and pushing on regardless is a tell-tale sign of a Dongle!
5) Could this product be used to justify systemic barriers?
For example, a stair-climbing wheelchair might be used to justify not having ramps or lifts, making access an individual rather than a collective responsibility. I wouldn’t give a product a platform if it was likely to reinforce or increase environmental, systemic or attitudinal barriers for disabled people.
6) Are you confident the product will work in the real world?
For example, has it been thoroughly tested by its intended user group? Can you envisage it working in a range of environments or contexts? Can it be tailored to individual requirements if necessary? Could you imagine it being used within your home, workplace or community? Would you have any concerns? I wouldn’t expect answers to all these questions, but they’re the type of factors I’d consider.
When it comes to disability, it often seems that designers are creating products for a totally different reality – for example most stair climbing wheelchairs ascend backwards – imagine how terrifying and impractical it would be to go up a flight of stairs without knowing what’s in your path! Of course, a design doesn’t need to be perfect to be shared or celebrated, but in my view it’s reasonable to expect it to be safe and usable.
7) Is the product likely to be prohibitively expensive?
This is obviously subjective, but I’d want a design team to have considered potential financial barriers to their product. What are the strategies they have to help people manage the cost? I’d only give a product a platform if I felt convinced it offered fair value.
8) Are users central to the messaging associated with this product?
I’d look carefully at how the product was being marketed. If press-releases focus on the non-disabled designers, I’d think carefully before giving the product a platform. I’d also want to see images that showed intended users using the product, not just press shots featuring non-disabled testers or members of the design team.
I’d expect marketing material to be accessible, for example videos should be captioned for deaf and hard of hearing people and images should have descriptions for those who are blind or partially sighted. I would be concerned if no thought had been given to how accessible the information is.
If all eight of these questions can be answered reasonably well then I’d be ready to give the product a platform.
I’m sure there are issues facing journalists and design organisations that I’m not aware of. I can imagine that, when under pressure, taking extra time to go through questions like these may feel like an extra layer of hassle, but this diligence has the potential to take stress and labour away from disabled people further down the line. It’s essential that we ask the right questions in order to celebrate disability¬- centred design, and platform genuine innovation.
If I was evaluating products regularly, I’d want to build relationships with disabled designers, makers, journalists and curators so I’d have a team of colleagues to engage with and seek advice from.
Thinking about these questions has helped me re-engage with what I love about good design, and I feel excited when I think about how it enriches all our lives.
The first step to reducing the number of Disability Dongles is for everyone in the design industry, from makers to journalists, to understand that disabled people are more than passive users: we’re the experts on our own bodies, our minds, and our environments.
This post is created with openness, hope and optimism so please use and share it in a similar spirit. I’m sure there will be areas I’ve missed and if you have any questions, please comment below.