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Design of the times

15 July 2016
Students design access ideas with and for people with disabilities

The Enabled by Design-athon brought people with disabilities together with students from the Faculty of Architecture, Design and Planning to co-design more effective ideas for easier campus access.

Despite our best efforts, the design process can unwittingly limit technology’s potential. It’s often hard to predict the experiences and needs of the people who will use it, particularly when those people might be living with disabilities.

In April 2016, students from the Faculty of Architecture, Design and Planning aimed to overcome this by taking part in the Enabled by Design-athon.

Enabled by Design-athon is an international initiative that brings together students, industry, clinical practitioners and people living with disabilities to workshop ideas for new products and assistive technologies. The Australian Enabled by Design-athon is hosted, in partnership with the University of Sydney, by the Remarkable organisation, which is a division of Cerebral Palsy Alliance.

In the classroom, students learn about the value of co-design, where designers and the ultimate users all contribute ideas. The Design-athon was an opportunity to put this principle into practice for students who will one day be designing products for all kinds of users, including people with disabilities and an ageing population.

Associate Professor Martin Tomitsch, Head of Design in the Faculty of Architecture, Design and Planning, says collaboration allows designers and users to bring their own perspectives and experiences to generate change. “It can lead not only to new solutions that otherwise might not have emerged, but more importantly it will bring out solutions that actually address the concerns, needs and desires of people,” he says.

“An important side benefit of co-design is that people feel empowered by having a say in what future products might look like.”

After three days of intensive work, teams presented prototypes of their designs to their peers and a panel of judges. The ideas were diverse – from a Bluetooth device to help visually impaired people find their destinations, to a shopping trolley for people who struggle with mobility.

Third-year Bachelor of Design Computing student Kate Archbold says the event opened up her mind to being more inclusive. “One of the things I really took away from this is that there’s a big difference between designing for someone with a disability and designing with someone with a disability.

“We have such an increasing demand for designs that are inclusive on all levels. It needs to be something that we think about day to day, rather than trying to do it at the end of the design process because you forgot to do it at the start.”

The designs generated at Enabled by Design-athon have the potential to be taken up by investors and developed into groundbreaking new products. “If it even sparks an idea that could make it happen in the future, I’d be happy with that,” Archbold says.

This assistive technology could help the nearly 2000 students who are registered with the University’s Disability Services unit.

“Advances in technology are constantly improving assistive technology to make it more effective for the user,” Disability Services Manager Dagmar Kminiak says. “New technologies could assist individuals with a range of disabilities to offset the impacts of their condition on their study – the opportunities are exciting and endless.”

Support for students with a disability includes access to the Assistive Technology Lab in Fisher Library; screen readers and magnifiers for vision impairment; voice recognition for learning, physical and cognitive impairments; and text-to-speech technology for learning and cognitive disabilities.

The University also supplies large print, braille and accessible PDFs for exams, as well as more specific tools and support for individual students’ needs.

The founder of Remarkable and workshop organiser, Peter Horsley, says co-design can often lead to ideas and technologies that benefit all members of society. “We want to see assistive technology kick into the higher level of universal design,” Horsley says. “We really believe that disability can be a lens you look through that enables innovation, and to think about design in a better way for everyone.”


Written by Angela Wilcox-Watson

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