Design for our future selves: how the wheelchairs of tomorrow can liberate people with disabilities

A celebrated campaigner on how better design can improve lives at home and abroad

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When I swapped my old, cumbersome hospital-style wheelchair for a sleek, black model like the one I'm in today, my life changed overnight.

I had left hospital to start my new life as a disabled person in society. However, I felt like there was a part of the hospital that was still with me, that I could not shake off. My wheelchair was neither adjustable nor comfortable and I felt shackled by it.

The day I got a different chair was transformative. It wasn't just that I could adjust it to fit properly and that it was easier to push. I saw myself in that chair and I felt good. I was proud to go out in it.  As David Cameron alluded to in his speech at the party conference last week, now people saw me, not my wheelchair.

Designers can adjust and adapt things – cars, kitchen equipment, sewing machines – so that disabled people can use them. But if you're designing something from scratch, why not design it in a way that's more inclusive, so that more people can use it? For example, if every hotel had wet room style bathrooms, disabled people would have more chance of being able to use them if the accessible rooms were already full.

There has been a real shift over the last 30 years in terms of inclusive design. I feel young designers are far more socially minded; they're more aware of and willing to work on projects which are for the benefit of people with more needs than the average user.

Some years ago the Royal College of Art came up with a superb slogan: ‘Design for our future selves’. This speaks to what we may become.  I've also heard the term ‘temporarily able-bodied’. At some point, most people are going to have some sort of impairment or disability. It may not be as drastic as a spinal cord injury or losing a limb; it could just be ageing or possibly sight and hearing issues that come with ageing.  It's about thinking, 'I’m this today but I might be that tomorrow.' I think it's a good approach to design.

Motivation was founded on the basis of using industrial design to improve disabled people’s lives in developing countries. We have mainly focused on wheelchairs for the challenging environments people face overseas.

In developed countries we have expensive, high tech wheelchairs. They make a huge impact on the social and economic rehabilitation of the user not only because they enabled the user to sit better and push better, but because they are important for a person's self-image.  We are no longer swamped by our wheelchairs; we can present ourselves as people.

At the same time, old, unwanted wheelchairs that are donated to developing countries, the theory being ‘better to send them to Africa than send them to the tip', do more harm than good.

When they arrive in the tough environments of developing countries, the majority break. Repairing them is no easy task because spare parts aren't available locally. They rarely fit the user properly or come with a pressure relief cushion – so they can cause potentially fatal health problems like pressure ulcers. 

At Motivation, we have designed a range of wheelchairs made of parts that are replaceable and repairable locally. They've been built for people living in a variety of settings, for example rural areas with rough terrain. They are affordable, yet they have the properties and features of the chairs found in developed countries. So as well as being easy to use, they actually look good.  They enable people to leave their homes, go to the market, visit their families and travel to work.

We are constantly trying to raise the bar, using design to enhance the lives of disabled people. With our low-cost sports chairs, the potential for rehabilitation is huge: people get into a social setting, they get fitter, build their strength, their self-esteem, their confidence. The benefits go way beyond the purely physical. This is design for the real world.

David Constantine is speaking at the Royal Geographical Society tonight. Tickets are available at www.rgs.org

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