American Action Fund for Blind Children and Adults
Future Reflections
       Fall 2023      SCHOOL

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So, What Are You Studying?

by Rishika Kartik

Rishika KartikFrom the Editor: Rishika Kartik first connected with the blind community as a high school student, when she volunteered with Ann Cunningham in the art program at the Colorado Center for the Blind (CCB). Today Rishika is a sophomore at Brown University, where her interest in art and disability has led her to develop a unique interdisciplinary major in Disability and Design. In this article she describes this burgeoning field and explains why it matters for all of us.

Perplexed expressions permeate the room. It's 1 p.m. on a not-so-unusual Saturday. Five minutes ago you were eating a waffle in peace and joking about your family's lack of punctuality (who eats waffles at 1 p.m.?) One minute later you're thrown an all-too-familiar hand grenade, the question that may be the bane of every college student's existence. "So, what are you studying?"

This question typically favors simplicity over nuance. It's much easier to present a one-word answer and move on with small-talk salsa than it is to chart your path as an "interdisciplinary multi-hyphenate." And yet, in creating my own major, I intentionally have chosen the nebulousness of the latter. I have opted to explore "Disability and Design," a field that is not yet recognized as an academic discipline, though in my view it should be.

So what is this field? What am I studying, and why am I studying it? Why should anyone care?

My major examines the following questions: What medical, economic, cultural, and political barriers prevent people with disabilities from using objects or spaces? How do people interact with products? How do we identify user needs and create enjoyable, socially responsible designs that address these needs? How can design act as a vehicle for protest and social progress?

What Is Design?

In the words of graphic designer Ivan Chermayeff, to design is "to solve human problems by identifying them and executing the best solution." Design permeates our social fabric; it creates the products, systems, artwork, and technology we interact with every day. Yet, even though one in four of us has a disability, we currently design with the assumption that everyone functions in standard ways. Disability and Design challenges an ableist paradigm by creating interactive, aesthetic, usable products and experiences for people with disabilities. It rejects the traditional process of designing for the "average user." Instead, it reframes the creative process by designing for people with disabilities first to create innovative solutions for all.

The term "accessible design" refers to the development of ideas tailored to the needs of a specific demographic with a disability. Braille displays, tactile graphics, wheelchair ramps, and captioning systems are just a few examples of such accessible design. In addition to accessibility-specific firms, accessible designers are employed in every industry to make existing products more inclusive. Examples are tech companies such as Google, hospitals such as Hasbro Gensler, and several architectural firms.

The study of Disability and Design views accessible design as a complement to universal design, defined by the Center for Universal Design as "the design of products and environments to be usable by all people, to the greatest extent possible, without the need for adaptation." An example of accessible design is SMS texting, which was created to help deaf people communicate. Siri and the typewriter were both initially created as assistive technologies for the blind. While Disability and Design focuses on a specific subset of users, it results in more creative solutions for everyone.

The field of design blends art and engineering. However, it distinguishes itself as a separate field of study by exploring how people use products and the environments/communities in which designs will be used. After all, an idea can be visually appealing and technically efficient, but its value is severely limited if people can't use it or don't want it in the first place.

The field of visual arts focuses on aesthetics: enhancing our surroundings, evoking emotion, and encouraging dialogue around pertinent social issues. Engineering focuses on functionality, on understanding mechanics to create products that perform tasks under practical constraints. Disability and Design incorporates engineering to ensure that products are manufacturable/usable/resilient and art is pleasing/enjoyable/rhetorically responsible. It uses Disability Studies to socially "contextualize" designs.

What Is Disability?

According to the CDC, a disability is "any condition of the body or mind (impairment) that makes it more difficult for the person with the condition to do certain activities (activity limitation) and interact with the world around them (participation restrictions.)" The CDC's definition focuses on pathology and medical examination without considering disability from a social or cultural perspective. This concentration, in contrast, views disability as a cultural identity. This non-biological perspective is supported by scholars such as Beth Haller and Harriet McBryde Johnson, as well as courses such as "Pathology to Power: Disability, Health, and Community" offered at Brown. Understanding the medical perspective of disability is important. However, rather than understanding medical conditions of individuals, Disability and Design focuses on the policies, artwork, technology, social systems, and experiences that affect the everyday lives of communities with disabilities.

Disability and Design also looks at the intersectionality between disability and related cultural identities, such as race and sexuality. Disability and Design starts with a broad understanding of cultural groups with disabilities, including people with intellectual/developmental disabilities, people with mental illness, and people with mobility impairments.

"So how are they related?" people ask. "And why are you studying it?"

Disability and Design emphasizes scholar Rosemarie Garland-Thompson's idea of "disability gain." Garland-Thompson argues that because disability is a unique way of experiencing the world, understanding disability creates innovative perspectives and ideas. "Disability gain" analyzes how people with disabilities work within constraints to design adaptable and practical solutions to everyday problems; in other words, how people with disabilities engage in design thinking. Design benefits from emulating the creative approaches communities with disabilities take to solve problems; disability advocacy is design thinking. By learning how people with disabilities design systems, initiatives, and products, designers gain a new understanding of how to approach and address complex social problems.

Most of all, Disability and Design has helped me reframe my view on education and problem solving. I've grown to believe that the goal of my major isn't to be certain what to think, but to guide me in how to think. A vague metric of success? Perhaps. Yet, in my view, a far more meaningful educational aspiration than a one-word answer to a casual 1 p.m. waffle conversation, even if perplexed expressions permeate the room.

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