Dave Cox, technical partner, Lean Mean Fighting Machine
Dave Cox, technical partner, Lean Mean Fighting Machine
A view from Dave Cox

Think BR: Redefining ability

With the Paralympics now well under way isn't it time we looked again at our definition of ability, asks Dave Cox, technical partner, Lean Mean Fighting Machine.

In 1949 Dr Timothy Nugent started the American National Wheelchair Basketball Association. In the same year he also started a research program at the University of Illinois that led to the first accessible architectural standards.

This was real progress: taking design for the ‘able-bodied’ and adding to it to make it accessible (or 'barrier free’) for the ‘disabled’.

Subsequently, the concept of Universal Design was coined by the architect Ronald Mace. It put more of an emphasis on designing for everyone from the ground up.

This was a much more elegant approach. It's always better to re-factor design to do a lot with as little as possible, rather than tack features on to solve individual problems – in this case people with disabilities.

Homer Simpson fell foul of this once when he was entrusted to design a car by his half-brother Herb.

It ended up as a hideous mishmash with features like a sound-proof bubble for kids and a bowling mascot on the hood.

Design that benefits all abilities surrounds us everyday, eg, easy to turn handles, wide doors, clear signs and grippy floors.

The electric toothbrush was originally developed for people with limited mobility. And in web design, visually accessible design makes things clearer for everybody.

So, with the Paralympics now under way, what if we concentrate on this and start paying more attention to design specifically centered around differently-abled people? What can we learn?

We have started to think about this at Lean Mean Fighting Machine with an R+D project we are currently working on.

We are developing a haptic armband with a 'screen' made from vibrating 'pixels'. Our first prototype allows users to draw or write on each other’s arms over the web.

In thinking about how to communicate efficiently using haptics, pretty soon we realised that we weren't the experts.

We’re talking about communicating without a screen, so we need to talk to people who are used to communicating without sight. It would be crazy not to.

We looked into the American Manual alphabet and the Deafblind Alphabet (the one where people draw on each other's hands).

Braille? Do they always write letter by letter, or have they learned a short hand? Are there ways of communicating emotions by touch, or music?

We're collaborating with Dr Tony Stockman at Queen Mary University to find out. He’s a blind interaction expert with 30 years of research to his name.

In doing so we're hoping to get a deep insight into a channel of communication we have little experience in.

The first thing he mentioned on hearing about our device was its possible use in sport, which we hadn't considered at all.

Could blind footballers in the next Paralympics use it? Can they teach us how to make the thing efficient, as it would have to be in a match?

And in turn blind football could teach us how to impart directions quickly, which might be perfect for a haptic sat-nav app.

As technology is reaching out way beyond the screen and talking to us in different ways, UX designers are about to have to start thinking about touch, hearing and other senses more deeply than ever before.

And we should be smart about who we learn from by looking at the commonly accepted definitions of ability a little more laterally.

Dave Cox, technical partner, Lean Mean Fighting Machine