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Students, People with Different Abilities Collaborate on Adaptive Design Solutions

January 4, 2016
Source: Syracuse University

Eyeglasses can be colorful, elegant and make a fashion statement. They become an extension of a person and reflect the wearer’s personality. Viewed over time, they blend in.

What if someone’s wheelchair or accessible device was thought of in the same way?

Professor Don Carr thinks we can get there with a wide array of products and it’s time for a new way of thinking about adaptive design.

“That’s a very powerful goal when design and engineering work together. You’re not signaling to the world that you’re different through what you’re wearing or the apparatus you elect to use,” says Carr, a professor of industrial and interaction design.

“If we can overcome some of these challenges, that would be huge,” he says.

Carr is the coordinator of the College of Visual and Performing Arts’ master of fine arts degree program in collaborative design in the School of Design, which launched last year.

Students in the program work on interdisciplinary teams to explore intelligent spaces, products and materials, and branch out across campus and into the community to bring others into the process.

The key is to include areas of strength in other disciplines within the University.


During the fall semester, the design students worked with College of Engineering and Computer Science (ECS) students during the annual Fitness Inclusion Network (Fit-IN) conference and considered design challenges for people with a range of abilities.

The ECS students were from the "Introduction to Entrepreneurial Engineering" course taught by Mark Povinelli, the Kenneth A. and Mary Ann Shaw Professor of Practice in Entrepreneurial Leadership.

Povinelli’s class focuses on what it takes to create a startup business using project-based design problems. This includes working with the end user, observing and listening to the problem, empathizing with the user’s situation and going through the ideation process before prototyping and implementing a final design.

Sport, dance and recreation

A collaboration of the Upstate Foundation/Golisano Childrens Hospital, SUNY Cortland’s Department of Physical Education and the Burton Blatt Institute (BBI), Fit-IN seeks innovative ways to promote inclusive fitness for people with disabilities.

The group partnered with University faculty and students for its third conference, which looked at mobility involving sport, dance and recreation.

Before the conference, students visited three sites, including Jowonio, a school serving children of various abilities with such programs as adaptive ballet, to share information on the sites at the conference.

During the three-day conference, students participated in collaborative stations, including painting a mask while another person tried to explain what the image should look like and experiencing what it was like to paint while in a wheelchair.

“The idea of the collaborative stations was to have this dialogue between people with disabilities, designers and engineers around what people with disabilities encounter every day,” Povinelli says.

Students also heard from speakers who shared their experiences, including Michele Lobo and Martha Hall, GoBabyGo/FUNctional Fashion, University of Delaware; Joseph Clifford and Skip Meetze, e-NABLE; and Central New York athletes Chloe Crawford, a world champion paraclimber; Peyton Sefick, a member of Team USA/CNY United, United States Power Soccer Association; and Jill Walsh, a world champion paracycler.

Real-life challenges

Students later developed solutions for real-life challenges. One idea centered around Walsh, who noted how she is unable to carry a laundry basket down her basement steps. She ends up kicking it to the bottom of the steps.

Some of the students, including mechanical engineering student Zachary Hauser ’18, are working to design and implement a system that will help Walsh be able to move her laundry to the basement.

The conference gave Hauser insights into what it actually means to design.

“The conference showed me that in reality there is not a singular answer to a problem or series of problems,” Hauser says. “With every challenge there is a distinct set of individual specifications. In the stage of adaptive design, each person that has a disability is affected in a different way that allows them to be able and not able to do different things.”

Collaborative design student Asal Andarzipour G’17 learned that the concept of universal design might need to be rethought.

“It seems that every individual has specific needs and this makes the mass production system inefficient in some cases,” Andarzipour says. “Appearance of new approaches in design, like slow design, is a response to this system.”

Andarzipour believes this area in design has not been explored much, but it could have a big impact on people’s lives. “Designers can follow their social responsibilities while designing adapted things,” Andarzipour says.

Inspired designs

Students also gained inspiration from Sefick’s experiences as an athlete. Many gyms are unable to accommodate his team because the ramps are not sufficient. A ramp design that can be set up and adjusted to a variety of locations could be useful.

Other students met with a young girl who uses a device to help her stand while doing ballet. “It was really good to see the students engage with the child, who has this particular disability and has certain problems with her technology, and thinking about how can we make it better,” Povinelli says.

Carr and Povinelli are also looking at grants to move forward with some of the design challenges. They were recently awarded a small-scale grant through a new University internal grant program for research and collaborative scholarship.

Carr is also working with Nienke Dosa, Upstate Foundation Professor of Child Health Policy at Upstate Medical University/Upstate Golisano Children’s Hospital and a senior fellow at BBI, to further adaptive design ideas.

Process of listening

By working together, designers and engineers can create solutions, but there’s a larger context.

“It’s framing the opportunity for people to collaborate and for those discussions to emerge and be discovered,” Carr says.

Povinelli, who is also building collaborative bridges between schools, agrees.

“This makes them better engineers and designers—when they can go through the process of listening and observing,” Povinelli says. “There’s all this rich detail of information that can inform their designs.”

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