How designers are slashing the stigma around assistive devices
Developing products for an older population doesn't mean giving up aesthetic features. As Marcia Adair reports, furniture and decor with mobility modifications doesn't have to be ugly, or complicated, to best assist
Bathroom-furniture makers are a canny people. Most of the items on your bathroom reno wish list started out as function-first products for the institutional market. Now, thanks to a few aesthetic tweaks and plenty of soft-focus ads, they are aspirational lifestyle choices.
Those slate-lined curbless showers we all lust after were first designed to help people with low mobility bathe independently. That trend to have no cupboard under the bathroom sink? Also happens to be wheelchair and rollator-friendly.
"Product developers are starting to realize that creating products for older people doesn't necessarily mean they have to look like products for old people," says Michael Schlenke, a German universal-design expert and consultant. "Designers know that sometimes they can't disguise the assistive technology that makes a product useful," Schlenke says. "If we can't hide it, we make it a feature."
Now that the largest group of people on record reach old age have arrived in the Young Old stage of their lives, all the work companies have done to remove the stigma around mobility modifications is beginning to bear fruit.
Large-scale social change can be driven by marketers (see: engagement rings, razors, Santa Claus) but in this case, the bathroom industry was an early participant in a global move toward universal design. The idea was first developed by British architect Selwyn Goldsmith in the 1960s in his seminal book Designing for the Disabled. The guidelines went on to become the handbook for accessibility design in public buildings and led directly to sloped curbs, kneeling buses and tactile paving.
Inside, simple things such as tap handles that are pushed instead of twisted – inspired by the glorious stainless-steel wings flanking the sink in an accessible bathroom – now make up 90 per cent of available tap-handle options. "What's so interesting about designing for challenges like mobility, accessibility, independence," says Randy Plemel, senior lead designer at the international design firm IDEO, "is that once you start solving for these issues you realize you are designing for so many other groups, too." The luxury imitation market isn't known for its forward thinking, but even a Billy Madison-style golden swan faucet is available with lever-like handles (in the shape of swan heads), so it seems fair to say the change is permanent.
Now that somewhere around 20 per cent of North Americans are or will shortly be in need of assistive devices that they are not embarrassed to use, designers are getting to work. "Caregiving is a problem that needs a wholesale design intervention, for everyone involved," Plemel says. "Designers love sticky, knotty problems that have a lot of different facets to them. There's a huge opportunity here to positively impact a lot of people's lives."
Assistive equipment doesn't have to be ugly – or complicated – to best assist. And as is often the case, some of the cleverest designs are dreamt up by the young. At Dubai Design Week in November, graduates from 92 design schools around the world showed off their new product ideas. Ewa Dulcet and Martyzna Swierczynska from the School of Form in Poland won first prize for their MIKO+:Physiotherapeutic Jewellery, a range of beautifully modern copper pieces meant to alleviate carpal tunnel symptoms in situ.
People with reduced vision use their fingers to orient themselves when cutting vegetables. As part of his Folks Kitchenware range, Kevin Chiam, from the National University of Singapore, added a simple guard to a chef's knife that makes knicks and cuts avoidable.
Other designers came up with stylish Velcro wall tiles that help people with dementia keep track of household items, an electric bike that uses a gyroscope to help people with balance problems, and a spoon that can detect when a mug is full, so visually impaired people don't burn their fingers. The clever part of these designs, and indeed the concept of universal design itself, is that all the products can be used easily by everyone in the family, even the kids.
What works for rollators or mobility scooters also works for strollers. "We have a great need for universal design in the home," Schlenke says, "so that the improvements and renovations we make leave the house or apartment sexy for the next person. This might be a young family."
In the kitchen, Chiam's knife could be used by school-aged children to help prepare meals. How much fun would pouring juice for dinner at grandma's be if the glass beeped when it was time to stop? Cleaning a small child in a curbless shower is much more convenient than a big tub and more than one person with a blown-out knee will be grateful for the chance to bathe without needing to climb into something.
Although momentum is great when it comes to developing products for Young Olds, a significant barrier awaits at the bridge to Old Old. Products that are established on the market already were very carefully designed for plausible deniability. Sure, it's a grab bar, but it's also a towel rod. Who wouldn't want a shower with a built-in bench? Back-up camera on our new crossover? Helpful for – but not because of – my arthritic neck.
Eyeglasses have made the transition from social suicide to coveted accessory. Nerds have never been cooler. Products that have one job, such as rollators, make the marketer do a bit more work, but even they are reaching the point where social currency is acquired, not lost. The last big item to transition is the stair lift. As countless films have gleefully pointed out, there is nothing sexy about inching down a staircase whilst seated, no matter how grand. "Mobility is closely related to loneliness. If you can't get out of your dwelling in order to buy food or meet a friend for a coffee, then you're are talking about loneliness," Schlenke says. "The banana bike was the symbol of mobility and autonomy in my childhood. The stair lift is also a symbol of autonomy, but no one wants one. It's a problem of communication."
If bathroom-furniture manufacturers can make what were formerly niche products into things we fantasize about owning, then finding a way to get up and down stairs that doesn't cost anyone their dignity should be well within reach. The more these things are talked about, the more the market will respond. Talk proudly about the under-drywall plywood layer you included in your bathroom reno to better support grab bars or how much your grandkids love brushing their teeth at the lower sink you had the contractor put in so you could put on your makeup sitting down. Who wouldn't? "It benefits the whole community," Plemel says.
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