consider aesthetics in mobility aids

The developers of Bionic devices have sought to provide users with something more intuitive and versatile. Credit: Shutterstock

The global disability market comprises around 1.27 billion consumers, which is almost the size of the entire Chinese market and is equivalent to about one in five people worldwide. The assistive technology market is expected to be worth $ 32 billion globally by 2026, while the purchasing power of people with disabilities in the UK is around £ 274 billion. With an aging global population, these numbers will only increase as consumers develop age-related disabilities.

Yet historically assistive devices for people with disabilities – from wheelchairs to prosthetic arms – have been associated with a dismal institutional aesthetic. It is only in recent years that designers have started to listen to the demands of people with disabilities, who want the same choice in mobility aids and other assistive devices as they would with no. any other product.

“People don’t suddenly want everything in plastic and beige,” says Susan Costello, founder and CEO of Eyra.

Eyra was established in 2018 after Costello and his sister set out to find a two-handled mug for their elderly mother, whose hands had become very shaky. Unable to find anything aesthetically acceptable in specialty stores, the sisters chose to start developing their own line of household items for people with limited mobility and with pain issues in their hands.

The company has now launched a set of kitchen utensils – consisting of a pasta tong, spoon, slotted spoon, and spatula – with unique angled handles designed to be easier to handle. grab. Eyra has gone through around 50 different prototypes to come up with a handle that could accommodate a range of different gripping styles and is currently working to expand its range of accessible kitchen products.

The next product he plans to launch is a cutting board designed to be more stable in use than conventional products.

Eyra’s work is just one example of products in the growing market for aesthetic assistive devices, which manage to center both form and function in their design.

Consumers want assistive devices that reflect their personality

In addition to adapted versions of everyday products that able-bodied and disabled people need to use, products such as walkers designed directly for use by people with disabilities also benefit from an aesthetic upgrade.

byACRE is a Danish company that produces carbon fiber rollators with an elegant and aesthetic design, available in a range of colors.

The company’s Carbon Ultralight rollator, designed for everyday use, weighs just 4.8kg, while the Carbon Overload all-terrain rollator weighs 6.7kg, both less than the average weight of a more conventional aluminum rollator. . This means that the devices are not only more pleasing to the eye, but also easier to use.

“The first thing was that it shouldn’t look like a medical device, it should have a clear reference to an organic shape,” said Anders Berggreen, founder and CEO of byACRE.

“If you look at carbon fiber bikes or racing cars, and a predator like a shark, barracuda, or eagle, they all have a sense of speed and activity. I tried to focus and distill these images in the form of the rollator. I think we’ve really been successful in creating a design language that people understand and identify with.

Custom and colorful walking poles are also growing in popularity, which NeoWalk founder Lyndsay Watterson says is in large part thanks to communities of people with disabilities on social media.

“It’s the best kind of advertising you can have because everyone is sharing and everyone wants everyone to benefit equally,” she says.

Watterson, who is an amputee, began making her own canes at home after feeling dissatisfied with the poor options available, which led to the founding of NeoWalk.

She says, “I actually made my first walking stick in my kitchen at home. I had an acrylic rod and put it in the oven at home and folded it around a bottle of wine. People started to say “look at your cane, where did you find this?” So I thought this might be something other people might enjoy as well. ”

The manufacturing process for the company’s products remains similar. Watterson purchases acrylic rods in bulk, which are then cut to the user’s height. The handles are heated in a specially adapted oven and molded into shape. Products are available in a wide range of colors and designs, with custom options available.

“People just want something that reflects their personality, which an awkward gray hospital walking stick doesn’t,” Watterson says. “They can have pink hair, really fabulous earrings, a gorgeous dress, and then they end up with that horrible wooden walking stick that just doesn’t fit.”

“I think people are just excited to find something that they can say ‘it reflects me, it goes with me, inside is how bright and pink I am’, they are thankful that there’s something different from what we’re just expected to put up with.

Bionic arms as an expression of identity

Prosthetic arms have been the subject of much media hype as the technologies behind them have evolved. In previous decades, prostheses were purely aesthetic or would have more limited functionality, but developers of bionic devices sought to provide users with something more intuitive and versatile.

Limbitless Solutions is an American nonprofit organization based at the University of Central Florida that develops custom 3D printed bionic arms for children. So far it has donated 40 arms to 36 users. The devices are operated by the child by flexing the muscles of their residual limb, usually in the biceps or the very upper part of the forearm. These movements create a signal of tension in the device which turns into movement in the device.

The structural components of the arm are currently all 3D printed except for a few metal fasteners and fixings. A vacuum thermoforming machine is then used to wrap the molten plastic around the arm to form the cosmetic components.

Limitless President Albert Manero said, “We’ve learned that prosthetic kids really want to be able to stand out and express themselves through their bionic arms. All of the kids we worked with were able to choose multiple handles that magnetically lock above the structural components of the arm.

“They can go in and choose from a list of color palettes and view the model in 3D on a computer, then go select any area and change the color with a color wheel, to really bring out the arm expression for it. match how they feel.The expression and identity of children develop over time, so it makes sense that the bionic arm should go through the same process with them.

“It’s amazing to see a child’s confidence skyrocket when they get the opportunity to bring their arm into their classroom and carry it. It really makes a huge difference to them. We know that if you are comfortable in school and can’t wait to go to class, you are much more likely to do well, and that can change your entire life trajectory.

Limbitless is currently in a clinical trial in the United States with 18 participants, with the ultimate goal of submitting its device for US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approval and expanding distribution. The company is also working with the US Veterans Administration to develop a product for the adult population.

But not all people with disabilities find bionic arms to be quite what they are meant to be. Human writer and geographer Britt H Young, who occasionally uses a bionic hand, has written critically about the hype surrounding the coverage of these devices.

Young says flashy, headline-grabbing bionic devices are often not as effective as the media coverage and marketing materials may have, and that simpler devices may actually be more convenient. .

She says, “With prosthetic hands, the overwhelming emphasis (in popular media, funding, academic research, etc.) on the multi-articulated hand has eclipsed simpler, easier to use, and less expensive innovations. There is a huge disconnect between the user and the designers.

“Tons of funding and research is going to expensive hands that very few people will buy, and not enough designers / engineers are interested in creating low cost devices that can help upper limb disabled people in the home. . ”

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