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Exhibition highlights students' design efforts to address disability issues

Sears, McDonagh and Khuri
Click photo to enlarge
Photo by L. Brian Stauffer
Susann Sears, of Disability Resources and Education Services; Deana McDonagh, of industrial design, and M. Lydia Khuri, of Housing Division, pooled their expertise to launch an innovative project matching students in McDonagh's industrial design class with DRES students and members of the Delta Sigma Omicron service fraternity.


Melissa Mitchell, News Editor
CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — When University of Illinois sophomore Stephen Diebold signed up for Deana McDonagh’s industrial design studio course, he figured he might get experience designing a prototype for a lamp or some other common consumer product.

But McDonagh, whose specialty is empathic design – that is, designing products with rather than for a specific set of users – had a loftier, more altruistic vision for the projects her students would be charged with designing. The undergraduates and graduate students in her course would be primed for an assignment that had the potential to change lives.

The industrial design students were matched with students registered with the U. of I.’s Disability Resources and Educational Services and with members of the campus’s Delta Sigma Omicron service fraternity. The design students’ assignment was to work – one-to-one or two-to-one – with DRES and DSO students to create simple, low-tech product designs and prototypes that could enhance the abilities, independence and quality of life of students with disabilities.

The fruits of the teams’ collaborative labor are on view in an exhibition called “Disability + Design” at the U. of I.’s Illini Union Art Gallery, 1401 W. Green St., Urbana, through May 5.

For his project, Diebold was paired with Jonathan, a law student with quadriplegia who incurred a spinal cord injury through a swimming accident. After shadowing Jonathan for a week to better assess his everyday needs, Diebold decided to create a chin pointer that could help Jonathan better interact with his environment.

In effect, Diebold said, the device – a stick-like tool attached to a clear, acrylic strap, which can be worn around the neck when not in use – effectively serves as a functional substitute for Jonathan’s hands and arms.

In the past, Jonathan had used a mouth pointer or head pointer to enable him to reach objects, type, use a phone keypad and operate switches. Both had limitations. The mouth pointer caused jaw cramping and tooth erosion; the head pointer worked better, but required assistance each time it was used, making Jonathan highly dependent on friends and even strangers.

In text that accompanies the chin-pointer prototype in the exhibition, Diebold writes: “Instead of creating a new system for the old pointer, we decided to make a new pointer. Why adapt to the problem when you can solve the problem?”

Stephen Diebold
Click photo to enlarge
Photo by L. Brian Stauffer
Industrial design student Stephen Diebold displays the chin pointer he designed with input from Jonathan, a law student with quadriplegia.

Although a personal assistant must first outfit the wearer with the chin strap, the design allows the wearer to enjoy total independence for the rest of the day.

“When he needs to use it, he simply lowers his chin and scoops up the pointer,” Diebold said. “An elastic strap and rubber chin guard help keep the pointer on while in use.”

The chin-pointer prototype was a hit not only with Jonathan but with others who learned about it. The design resulted in Diebold being named a finalist for the Lemelson-Illinois Student Prize, a major cash award given to a U. of I. student who has “demonstrated remarkable inventiveness and innovation.” He also has been meeting with representatives from the College of Engineering’s Technology Entrepreneur Center who are assisting him with plans to patent the device.

“This (experience) opens lots of doors,” Diebold said. “I really had no idea that it would turn into something so big.”

Other designs created by students participating in the course include a chair that can be used in the shower; accessible book shelves; an adjustable-height wheelchair cushion that can be folded and stowed in an easily accessible bag that attaches to the chair frame; a tool that enables a user with low vision to draw and cut a straight line; a stylish, customized purse that hangs around the wearer’s neck; and a reaching tool with a flexible plunger-like end that makes it possible to grab objects of varying shapes and sizes

Another design solution, for a person who uses a high-tech prosthetic leg that can’t be worn in the shower, is a simple waterproof cushion that attaches to a shower wall, enabling a person to lean comfortably against a shower wall.

McDonagh said this semester’s course and exhibition originally evolved from a consultation initiated by M. Lydia Khuri, a program coordinator in the university’s Housing Division. Last summer Khuri volunteered to develop programming on disability issues for “If These Walls ...,” an annual campus program that calls attention to diversity and social-justice issues.” She approached McDonagh with the idea of organizing some type of art exhibition focusing on disability on campus.

After the pair teamed with Susann Sears, a DRES disability specialist, McDonagh said the trio quickly realized that with their respective experience and creative abilities, “the idea had much greater potential.”

And if everything goes according to plans, that potential has only just begun to be tapped.

McDonagh is hoping to secure funding to offer a course that would enroll design students as well as students with disabilities. In addition to the goal of involving the latter group in the design process in order to produce more effective assistive devices, McDonagh hopes the experience will be a catalyst for more students with disabilities to consider careers in industrial design.

“What motivated me to put these two things together was that there is nowhere else you could do that,” McDonagh said. “This is a totally unique campus. Along with the (academic) caliber of our students, we have the oldest industrial design program and the oldest program for disability education and rehabilitation.”

McDonagh’s ambitious plans don’t end with a hybrid design-disability education course. She also wants to do initiate a pilot study, perhaps at the U. of I.’s Beckman Institute for Advanced Science and Technology, where she holds a faculty appointment.

And while the students in this year’s class created the designs on their own, her grander plan for the future would include collaborations with faculty members and students from Beckman, who could contribute to their technological expertise to the design process.

“This is my vision: an institute where students – regardless of their abilities or disabilities – would design housing, and design the desks, chairs and furniture that would be used on this campus,” McDonagh said. “It would be totally sustainable.”

The nature of the recent collaboration and conceived future collaborations that would bring together designers and individuals with disabilities is a perfect example of a basic principle of empathic design that the professor said she likes to emphasize in her classroom.

“There’s a quote I like to use: ‘Design is too important to leave to designers.’ ”