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Design for Living

Physios are becoming increasingly involved in the development of products they work with.

In a sports hall in Cambridgeshire, nine wheelchair-user basketball players are looking over a strange shaped plaster cast. It is a prototype for a shell seat that aims to hold them securely in their chair without the use of excessive strapping. It was designed by Joanne Willett, one of a growing band of physiotherapists getting involved in designing products for disabled people.

She designed the seat as her final project for the MA in design research for disability at London Metropolitan University, a course that takes designers and therapists - physios and occupational therapists - and produces graduates with skills in both disciplines. 'Wheelchairs have changed very little since the 1930s,' says Mrs Willett, who is on maternity leave from Newham primary care trust where she works in the wheelchair service. 'When people are doing sports in a wheelchair they tend to strap themselves in with snowboarding binding or bungee cords. That can lead to injury from the pressure points.' Hence the new shell seat, an idea born out of a project looking at injuries sustained by disabled sportspeople. Mrs Willett wanted to come up with something that would prevent the strap injuries.

The feedback on the prototype from the basketball players was mixed. 'Good and bad,' is Mrs Willett's verdict. 'Some of them said the backrest was not high enough for them and I have some ideas to solve it. Now we need to go to a hard cast that they can actually try out.'

Learning from experience

Traditionally, physiotherapists and designers have inhabited separate universes despite what might seem like overlapping interests. Physios are intimately involved in helping patients learn to use all sorts of products from supports and wheelchairs to prostheses. They know what's good and what's not and have loads of ideas about how they could be better, to witness the constant flow of ideas on the CSP's interactive website. But rarely have they had the chance to turn that knowledge into something practical.

Take Carolyn Hirons' experience. She is the immediate past chair of the British Association of Chartered Physiotherapists in Amputee Rehabilitation. 'I have never been asked for feedback on the functionality of prostheses,' she says. 'I went round the prosthetic manufacturing companies a few years ago and asked did they have a research physiotherapist and did they want one? The answer very clearly was no.' Intuitively she feels that industrial designers could benefit from working more closely with physios. It is exactly this gap that the MA course in design research for disability tries to bridge. 'Until about three years ago this was a very academic course with students doing a final dissertation that sat on a shelf,' says course leader Smadar Samson. 'I was brought in to bridge the divide between industry and academia.'

Product Design

Now it is very practical with the students' final project involving designing a product that will benefit people with a disability. It has been very successful, with students working on products that are now in manufacture, including an ergonomic office chair and support pads for children with cerebral palsy. Some of the therapy students are now working as consultants to manufacturers.

'We have quite a range of therapists coming to us from both the private and pubic sector,' says Ms Samson. 'In their work they come across so many good improvements that could be made and they are the ideal people to criticise.' The course does not aim to make designers out of therapists, or indeed therapists out of designers. Each studies something of the other's specialism, with the therapists doing a module on drawing and computer modelling and the designers studying life sciences. They work together, combining skills and ideas and both study the history of disability.

Merran Barber is a physio who teaches the life science module. 'I try to get them thinking about the human side of it rather than the design elements,' she says. 'They grasp it very quickly.' The combination of physios and designers is particularly powerful, she believes. 'To get good design you need to think about all the elements,' she says. 'You need to think about the user and what they are trying to achieve and what their characteristics are and why the product is needed.'

Working Together

That's where the physio skills can come in. 'You need to look at the bigger environment in which it will be used. You are also looking at the limitations of engineering and materials as well as the aesthetic design,' says Ms Barber, who also works as an ergonomics physio in private practice. 'This is the designer's domain. Mrs Willett sees it like this: 'Therapists come out with crazy ideas and the designers draw us back and ask how are we going to do it?' Katherine Jenkinson is another physio with a passion for design. She got involved 25 years ago when, as a young professional working in a special school, she treated a young boy with an idiopathic dystrophy.

'He had a horrible stander,' she says. 'I made such a fuss about it at home that my other half made me one.' The new stander did what she wanted as a therapist. 'It not only supported him but increased his ability and long-term function,' she says. 'It was a therapy item rather than a piece of furniture.' That was the start of Jenx, her Sheffield company that now employs over 60 people designing and making products for children with special needs.

Physio involvement in the design is crucial, she says. 'We need to offer children supportive furniture that does more than hold the child safely,' she says. It needs to be therapeutic and to maximise the child's potential. It must avoid creating injuries that will limit functionality in future as well as being based on the latest research - all aspects that fit physio expertise.

Ms Samson feels the time is right for designers and therapists to work more closely. The Disability Discrimination Act is creating new markets and heightening an interest in 'inclusive design', creating places and products that can used by people of all abilities and not just one disability, she points out (see box). Also, the government is commited to equalising the life chances of disabled children, as outlined in the Treasury and Department for Education and Skills report Aiming High for Disabled Children: better support for families. By making disabled children a high national priority, it should release funds for new and better products to support them. Meanwhile, Mrs Willett is hoping her newfound skills will help her at work when she goes back. 'I will be able to go into the workshop and sketch out what I want quickly. I will have the skills to argue my corner and explain what I want for my patients and how to get it.' FL

Further Information

The designer's perspective

Gill Hicks was injured in the London bombings of July 7 2005, losing both her legs below the knee. As a designer - she was formerly publishing director of architecture and design magazine Blueprint and later head of curation at the Design Council - she is well placed to judge the role that physios can bring to redesigning a living space for someone with new needs.

She commissioned architects to work on the overall redesign of her three-storey London home but says: ' Both my physios and my occupational therapists went round to assess its suitability. The main worry was how I would manage with the 60 stairs. They made recommendations like fitting hand rails to the stairs at a height that suited me, with prosthetics on or off.

They gave it the thumbs up generally but made some recommendations: widening all the doorways to accommodate my wheelchair, a seat to use in the bath and handrails at a low height on all staircases.' They also applied knowledge of her living environment to her rehabilitation programme. 'I have 60 stairs at home so we worked really hard on getting me to walk up and down stairs.' Her experience has changed her view on design and she now sees it as trivial unless it's inclusive. 'I'd always assumed that British design was very inclusive. It's not,' she says. 'A wheelchair ramp is a nightmare for someone with prosthetic legs. Design students should spend a day in a wheelchair or blindfolded so they can understand the needs of those they're designing for', says Ms Hicks who now works for the charity Peace Direct.


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Article Information


Daloni Carlisle

Issue date

15 August 2007

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