More Than Form: Design for Disability
What a microwavable monkey has to do with the MoMA and open social conversation.
By Maria Popova
Mental disability — from neurodegenerative diseases to developmental disability — is a difficult subject, often shoved under the bed of social dialogue. But the reality is that it exists, and those affected by it have needs — physical, emotional, mental — dramatically different from the average.
Dutch designer Twan Verdonck address this head-on through The Boezels, a series of animal-like toys designed for mentally challenged people and elderly with Alzheimer’s as sensorial stimulation therapy (Snoezelen) tools to help the learning process and reduce anxiety.
My project is a metaphor and example for how we could deal with social care, industry, design and art
The Boezels come in several varieties, each with a distinct “personality” and function, stimulating one or more of the four senses — touch, smell, hearing, sight. From a microwavable monkey meant to warm up the user’s belly to a snake infused with a relaxing smell, the toys are designed with a meticulously balanced combination of material, weight and size in a way that induces a strong sense of physical contact, stimulating emotional response.
Even more fascinatingly, The Boezels are not only designed for, but also by the mentally challenged — they are produced in De Wisselstroom, a daycare center The Netherlands, where a small group of people with mental impairments are working in close collaboration with Verdonck.
In 2006, The Boezels were acquired by the MoMA’s permanent collection. They are currently being successfully used for therapy by a number of European health organizations.
Physical disability can be an uncomfortable subject often veiled in a sense of taboo. Most people address it through a mix of denial, awkwardness and nervous self-derision. But it doesn’t have to be.
Italian designer Francesca Lanzavecchia‘s latest project, ProAesthetics Supports, explores the perception of disability through artifacts — crutches, corsets, braces and more.
Beyond the expected blend of form and function, her designs transform these vital body accessories into conversation pieces that make the discussion of disability easier, less judgmental and more open.
Back braces are the first representatives of bodily differences; molded and tailor-made around the body they are a cumbersome second skin. I reinterpreted them with the aim of transforming them objects of desire and representative skins.
While we’re far from suggesting there’s such a thing as “celebrating” disability per se, we do believe there’s a way to honor our bodies and their idiosyncrasies without shame and stigma. Francesca Lanzavecchia takes something often perceived as — if we’re really honest with ourselves — ugly, and brings a bold sense of aestheticism and pride to it, a much-needed perspective in the cultural dialogue on disability.
Visual impairment is tough, but it’s particularly challenging in young kids — sight is just too integral to the process of exploring one’s surroundings, a strong developmental need for children.
Every time an RFID-enabled object comes close to Sniff’s nose, the toy gives feedback through sound and vibration. Sniff can react to different stimuli with different behaviors, giving kids a richer, more tangible experience of their physical environment.
In 2008, Sniff won the prestigious Design for All prize from the Norwegian Design Council. Johansson is currently working on a more sophisticated and technologically advanced 2.0 version — you can follow the progress on Sniff’s prototypes here.
Published June 26, 2009