People With Disabilities Are No Strangers to DIY

By Josef Scarantino, UCP’s Manager of Strategic Partnerships, Life Labs. Article originally ran on doityourself.com

Though it may not be apparent, people with disabilities were some of the earliest pioneers of the DIY ethos. Driven by home environments that required hacks to make them more accessible and livable, and using their own ingenuity, people with disabilities have played a large role in propelling the DIY movement forward. In fact, some of the best innovations have come from within the disability community, who know and understand their own challenges better than anyone else.

Homemade Innovation

One of the most well-known DIY projects involving people with disabilities was the 3D-printed prosthetic hand made by a father for his son, who was born without fingers on his left hand. The story caught the attention of media outlets around the world and showcased the power of ingenuity and determination.

People are now producing their own intricate 3D-printed prosthetic hands and posting the instructions online free for anyone interested in making or improving the designs. A California-based nonprofit organization called Not Impossible has even taken the concept to the war-torn country of South Sudan where they started a lab and training facility to create prosthetics for children affected by the civil war.

Even five years ago, some of these concepts might have been considered impossible by people outside of the engineering and design space. But the barriers of entry for anyone, regardless of ability, are quickly disappearing with the availability of neighborhood makerspaces, more affordable tools such as 3D printing machines, and the increasingly collaborative sharing of universal design principles. Most importantly, all of these advances are being made accessible to everyday people without scientific or creative backgrounds who simply have the determination to improve on an existing product or even create a new invention.

DIY and the Design-athon

While the DIY and maker movement has grown from tinkerers working alone in their garages to a major cable networks and websites, we are at a turning point in the disability community. Organizations such as United Cerebral Palsy (UCP) are leading the charge in leveraging the DIY movement for the benefit of the people we serve — our Life Labs initiative is at the forefront of this effort. Based on the central tenant that innovation is a primary catalyst for the inclusion and progress of people with disabilities in society, Life Labs firmly believes that empowering people with disabilities to participate in the DIY movement is just as much about human rights as it is about the creation of more universal innovations. 

In November 2013, UCP’s Life Labs partnered with Google and UK-based organizations Enabled by Design and FutureGov to hold their first annual Washington, D.C.-based Design-athon, an international innovation event with a focus on disabilities. Hackers, designers, DIYers, and inventors of all kinds and from a variety of fields participated, including teams from NASA, the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services, the World Bank, the Corcoran College of Art + Design, the Cerebral Palsy Alliance, and eight universities. Reddit co-founder Alexis Ohanian even made a surprise appearance via Google Hangout to greet attendees and voice his support for the event. Over two exciting days, the participants heard from seasoned innovators and entrepreneurs, discussed the issues surrounding the need for more accessible, attractive and easier to use products for people with disabilities, and to worked to build functional, scalable prototypes. One of the highlights of the Design-athon was an immersive usability workshop where participants completed a range of empathy activities involving the use of crutches, visual impairment simulation glasses and gloves of varying thicknesses to simulate altered dexterity, all to help gain a better understanding of what kinds of products would make a difference for people with disabilities.  

The amazing results included prototypes that addressed mobility, dexterity and communications issues and demonstrated just how quickly products can be designed, personalized and built to better fit with people’s lives and their needs. Teams were eager to make use of the 3D printing machines, provided by PCS Engineering, within the first couple of hours of the event.

A panel of judges, including representatives from Google, Enabled by Design, FutureGov and Adobe, awarded the top prize to “Sous Chef,” a mobile kitchen island with variable height.

The event attendees awarded the people’s choice award to “Springboard,” a device that combines a cutting board with any knife to help stabilize the food preparation process.

The D.C. Design-athon was an amazing, inspiring event that brought together a diverse group, from people with disabilities to entrepreneurs to designers and healthcare providers, all with the same goal: find innovative solutions to the challenges that people with disabilities face. But as the winning designs demonstrate, the group’s inventions could appeal to a much broader audience. Both prototypes addressed the mobility and dexterity issues they were designed for– and surpassed them, functioning as tools that anyone could use and benefit from. It is this intersection of creativity and usability that makes the DIY movement so exciting – not just for UCP and the people we serve, but for anyone who sees a challenge as an opportunity to design, innovate and create.

UCP’s Life Labs team is constantly working to find ways to bring the Design-athon experience to more people, both within and outside of the disability community. Already, UCP affiliate the Cerebral Palsy Alliance, based in Sydney, Australia, has made plans to hold their own Design-athon in July 2014, spreading the message of inclusion to students, designers, and makers around the world. We see these events not just as the start of something great, but truly embodying the heart of the DIY ethos: meaningful social progress through innovation comes when people of any background and ability can participate in bringing their ideas to life.