Product Design – Wheelchairs

[The content of this blog is my opinion, so I’m not either endorsing or condoning this mobility technology]

After reading this interesting article about the WHILL wheelchair, I decided to further investigate by visiting their website. Unsurprisingly I found the usual problems regarding the product design of disability technology and societal constraints of normality.

Often, the designers of wheelchairs (or disability technology) are able-bodied, so the product is created on an assumption of need rather than through the involvement of disabled people.

This is the trap that WHILL has fallen into with 3 able-bodied designers creating the WHILL for a disabled friend who was embarrassed to venture outside in his wheelchair. They wanted to create a mobility device to help disabled people to feel confident.

Hold on a second. As a fellow wheelchair user, the problem with confidence isn’t the actual wheelchair but the anticipation of accessibility problems in the world around us. I already feel independent and confident sitting in my wheelchair.

This inherent ableist thinking suggesting that people view disability as wrong or embarrassing needs to be changed not just hidden by sticking-plasters of new technology.  A wheelchair does not need to be considered as something to be shunned, society needs to accept that wheelchairs are useful tools for disabled people to live their life.

They redesigned the ‘wheelchair’ from the ground up. Get this, with important features like colour customisation, foldability, an app to control your wheelchair remotely and seating the rider upright so they feel like they’re controlling a vehicle.

Apparently, the WHILL has been designed with the user in mind. However, who has ever wanted to feel like they’re controlling a vehicle when sitting in a wheelchair? It sounds like an interesting concept but clearly highlighting the able-bodied designers’ assumption of requirements.

Redesigning a wheelchair is not completely necessary as some options currently available are advanced already.

The rhetoric that it has been designed with the user in mind is quite arbitrary as disability has a vast scope of people with varying needs. Define your users. This wheelchair isn’t designed for people with severe muscle weakness as there is no headrest or seating support.

Thank you for reading and please join in the conversation at @UncannyVivek