• 11.22.10

Clever Park Benches and Fire Hydrants Make Life Easier for the Disabled

Five design teams tackle a thorny challenge: Making the circuitous cobblestone paths around Boston’s Faneuil Hall more friendly for the disabled.

Clever Park Benches and Fire Hydrants Make Life Easier for the Disabled


Last week, at the Symposium on Socially Sustainable Design at Build Boston, Julia Cassim, senior research fellow at the Royal College of Art in London, and a tireless advocate for the disabled, brought her signature global challenge to the Bay State.

Cassim’s passion is inclusive design — the practice of designing products and experiences with a responsibility to the experience of all users. Over the past decade, she’s traveled the globe, inciting designers in places as diverse as Tokyo and Dublin, to respond to the needs of this under-served population through a series of 24-hour challenges.

In Boston, Cassim teamed with Valerie Fletcher of the Institute of Human Centered Design, to host the first Inclusive Design Challenge on U.S. soil. Fletcher, herself a major thought leader in human-centered design, helped Cassim create a design challenge with broad relevance but a local twist: making it easier for the disabled to navigate the colonial-era surroundings of Boston’s historic downtown.

The design teams included a mix of design disciplines — both professionals and students. Each team also included a design partner with a disability. The goal was to design an inclusive solution that responded to the disabled partner’s experience, and addressed his or her needs and preferences. Points were given for improving the overall inclusivity in visual, spatial, mobility or communication terms.


After 24 hours of collaborative work, the teams, named after “T-stops” (Boston’s metro) – – Government Center, State Street, Park Street, Aquarium, and Haymarket — delivered five new product and experience opportunities around the journey to Faneuil Hall.

The “Government Center” team introduced a smart card system for wayfinding which they called the “Larry Card” (named after the design partner, Larry). The Larry Card enables vision-impaired users to find their way to points of interest, avoid unusual obstacles, or simply enrich a simple daily commute by interacting with strategically located kiosks, mobile apps or through a web site where the user can create a custom journey that best fits their personal needs.

Team “State Street” created an exploratory game-focused approach, leveraging existing infrastructure such as Boston’s popular Freedom Trail and the CharlieCard metro system. Their solution delivered the experience through a series of small, interactive spaces that provided local and historical information using engaging audio and visuals, combined with physical seating rest stops.

Team “Park Street” focused on a mobility solution that enhances the experiences of wheelchair-bound users combining simple accessibility issues and wayfinding. Their solution used analog graphical information placed adjacent to key physical transitions such as street curbs and road crossings, and brought together ramps, directional graphics and enhanced utility through Led lighting for a truly 24hr solution.

[A park bench that accommodates wheel chairs]


One particularly compelling presentation combined clever design thinking with a simple solution. Team “Aquarium” created a twist on the park bench – – bringing familiar home furniture vernacular to the external environment with an incredibly simple twist: a “space” that enables a wheelchair bound person to slide into the conversation.

[The Petal concept allows those with limited mobility to take a leaning rest on a fire hydrant]

The winner, however, was the “Haymarket” team, which offered a simple adaptation of the ubiquitous fire hydrant. The “Petal” seating concept recognizes the fact that those with limited mobility often need a place to pause or rest. This simple analog solution integrates a fire hydrant with a seat, effectively using existing infrastructure without affecting its functionality. The Petal delivers the simplest socially-inclusive concept and presents a well-rounded business idea.

As Cassim remarked, “It is clear this process is not for the faint-hearted or creatively insecure ” 24-hours with a team of creative individuals who have never worked together before, solving real issues that have real meaning.?

It would be great to see these ideas move out of the studio and onto the streets.