The Arts and Crafts movement designer William Morris once said, “Have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful.” Topical decluttering guru Marie Kondo suggests that we only keep things that “spark joy.” Blackwood itself’s vision is to be able to offer people beautiful, accessible and affordable homes, via its work on the Concept House. Yet for many users of adaptive aids, joy and beauty are in short order and being useful rules.

Obviously, if unlimited money is no object then anything is possible as Lady Gaga’s use of a gold plated wheelchair in 2013 showed but even for relatively well-off people with disabilities, it can still be hard to find attractive adaptive aids. Why is this?

“Anything remotely nice is incredibly expensive at the moment,” says Clare Cooper, founder of The Home Straight, a new Scottish social enterprise that offers independent living solutions for older people.  

Of course this doesn’t just affect elderly people with disabilities. “It doesn’t matter what age someone is. If they want something they like to fit their lifestyle and decor and they have the disposable income and are willing to pay for it, there isn’t a lot of that sort of thing around. Everything that is free from the state is very medicalised,” says Cooper’s cofounder and sister Olivia Robertson.

Part of the problem may be to do with the size of the market in the UK. “If you type grab rails into Google, many of the suppliers that come up will be North American,” says Cooper.

Even so, there are over 11 million people with disabilities in the UK (approximately 17% of the general population), according to 2014 figures from the UK Government, so the potential market is still relatively large. Coventry University, as part of its COMODAL programme, identified research showing that the UK market for adaptive products and technologies stood at around £1.6 billion a year between 2008 and 2010.

There’s another difference though, compared to the US – how this equipment is funded.  In the UK, it’s largely bought in bulk through the NHS and Social Care.  

At present, these differing ways of funding health and social care seem to have led to much more excitement about developing and promoting adaptive technology in the US.   

Coventry’s research also identified that design that lacks visual appeal can create stigma, something that may be important if people with disabilities buy their own equipment.  Robertson mentions one participant in her research for whom the visual look of a grab rail were very important because it was outside her house and she didn’t want to advertise that she needed help.

Attitudes may depend on age. “Younger older people have a much higher sense of design aesthetic, whereas the post-war generation tend to feel jolly lucky they have anything at all,” Robertson says.

As well as being unattractive, adaptive equipment is often ‘one size fits all’. Any kind of bespoke aspect adds cost. “Anything that isn’t pre-moulded and mass produced is very expensive,” says Robertson. Yet certain types of personalisation, like a bespoke grip, can greatly improve products. Standardised grips that don’t fit the user’s requirements may not help and can even cause harm. “People [in focus groups] … were very keen to have the possibility of choosing a bespoke grip on their items,” she says.

While 3D printing may eventually hold the answer, Cooper says that there is still a lot of work to be done. The Home Straight has been working with Dundee University on investigating 3D printing. “In terms of the finish you get on 3D printed materials there’s still a long way to go,” she says. There also needs to be health and safety checks on material performance in relation to weight, durability and other factors, she adds. “This hasn’t been sorted out with 3D printing in this context yet.”

Robertson says this situation needs to change “There’s always a premium put on decent products but we have to turn the tide on that. I don’t see why someone with a disability should have to pay more for a product just because they need it, “she states.

If you have views on the importance of visual design for assistive products, you can participate in an online survey that The Home Straight is currently carrying out.

Take a look at some other discussions on bespoken.

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