People with disabilities are too often stuck buying expensive gadgets to improve their daily lives. Worse, those gadgets may be poorly designed and fabricated. For Enabled By Design, a nonprofit specializing in "good design [that] can support people to live as independently as possible," 3-D printing is a game-changer. Instead of buying mass-produced products, people with disabilities can manufacture exactly what they need to suit their individual needs.
When Enabled By Design co-founder Denise Stephens was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, her daily activities changed dramatically. As her condition progressed and she found herself dealing with new challenges, she realized she had ambivalent feelings about assistive devices distributed by Britain’s National Health Service. Stephens describes the devices as "clinical" and says they made her apartment resemble a hospital room. As shown in the video below for the Catalyst Awards, Enabled By Design was founded to provide higher-quality assistive products that look good and which significantly improve quality of life.
"People with disabilities are often confined to using assistive equipment that is ugly and badly designed for their needs," Stephens says. Wheelchairs, crutches, handrails, vehicles, cutlery—most things in life—are given no aesthetic value and are usually utilitarian. "3-D printing has a huge potential to disrupt—it means people with disabilities will have the power to revolutionize the products they use and to make them highly personalized."
Stephens, speaking with Co.Design, emphasized the fact that many products designed for disabled users are not properly quality tested and also have usability challenges. She mentioned, for instance, bath lifts whose poor battery life would strand disabled users in their bathtub. By encouraging customers with handicaps to take on design challenges, she believes better products can be created.
Late last year, the organization held a designathon in London to show off DIY creations that were either 3-D printed or fabricated using more conventional methods. In one of the designathon’s sessions, designers and makers worked with Paul Carter, who co-directs a television production company. Carter was born without lower arms and legs, and is a heavy coffee drinker. Using a 3-D printer, competitors created a prototype water-heating device that could be operated without hands and which could be manipulated using upper arms.
Another project from the designathon, fingertip cacti, are tabletop dining utensils that slip on users’ fingers. The cacti are designed for eaters with motor impairments and make handling food significantly easier. In the case of the finger cacti, a 3-D printer was used to quickly produce prototypes that users could test out at the designathon.
Playsettings, which are spill-resistant tea cups, were fabricated on 3-D printers and have already made it to market. The tea cups, "for fine diners who want to keep up appearances," resemble hybrids between upside-down tea cups and tea kettles. Instead of a normal top, the cups have narrower openings that minimize spills. In addition, the $99 cups are designed for extra stability when being handled on a table.
Earlier in 2012, Enabled By Design hosted a Mine For Life design contest, which explored the uses of additive manufacturing and 3-D printing in functional prototypes for the disabled. David Emmerson, a draftsman for the Royal Engineers, won a $3,000 award to design a prototype 3-D printed project to improve the sexual well-being of troops whose genitals were injured by improvised explosive devices (IEDs). Emmerson’s project was designed with the help of British troops injured by IEDs with the assistance of Loughborough University.
One more 3-D printed winner from the design contest was James Langdon’s Gentle Guider—custom-made guide-dog harnesses contoured to the dog’s body. Because most guide dog harnesses are currently manufactured in standard small, medium, and large sizes, they can cause discomfort for dogs working long hours. Langdon’s prototype is a plastic, glow-in-the-dark product that’s custom-made for the dog’s body through a 3-D scanner and then fabricated with a 3-D printer.
Enabled By Design works closely with Futuregov, a British consultancy that assists local governments implementing new technologies. Futuregov’s Carrie Bishop and Dominic Campbell spoke at this year’s SXSW about 3-D printing for the disabled and their experiences introducing British government officials to quick prototyping for disabled constituents.
Campbell and Bishop told Co.Design that 3-D printers are used in a larger context, in the designathons, as part of a tool kit that also includes laser cutters and other small fabrication tools. The idea is to help disabled people, especially those with design backgrounds, quickly fabricate useful household and everyday items that others might not think of. Because 3-D printers are still in their early stages, they added, their interest right now is in prototyping small household items instead of larger, more difficult tools.
Meanwhile, other projects besides Playsettings are monetizing 3-D fabricated products for disabled customers. Bespoke Innovations, a company previously featured in Fast Company, uses 3-D printers and scanners to create customized prosthetic leg covers. The aerodynamic covers, which the company calls "Fairings," market for between $4,000 and $6,000; each Fairing is custom-made for the wearer.
Customers interested in purchasing Fairings work with designers at Bespoke to come up with a customized plastic or metal prosthetic cover. The design depends both on the user’s individual needs (standing, running, weightlifting) and on his or her aesthetic tastes. A 3-D scanner is used to measure the buyer’s leg, and 3-D printers are used to fabricate the actual fairing. By using 3-D printers, Bespoke is able to minimize costs.
There’s even 3-D printing for the blind. VizTouch, debuted at a conference last year, offers a UI for 3-D printers that allows professors to print visual representations of mathematical concepts. Using Viztouch, which is described on Github as a "tangible graphics research project," functions and data points can be shown in tactile 3-D forms to students. The creators of VizTouch hope this will make it easier for visually impaired students to work in mathematics classes.
Ultimately, the great benefit of 3-D printing for people with disabilities is simple. Consumer goods can be quickly and affordably produced for individual needs—something that wasn’t the case before. Because the nature of 3-D printing essentially prevents economies of scale, costs for custom-made goods actually go down. The big question is what happens over the coming decade, as materials used in 3-D printing become more robust and existing fabricators gain more capabilities.