Design meets Disability

Published on 10 June 2021

Studio Ordinary is a meeting of design research and disability studies, of creative and critical thinking.

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Hands of X at Cubitts' Kings X eyewear shop, London (images courtesy of Studio Ordinary)

Studio Ordinary was co-founded in 2019 by seven disabled and nondisabled researchers across DJCAD, Education & Social Work and Humanities, including Graham Pullin, Professor of Design and Disability, and Fiona Kumari Campbell, Professor of Disability and Ableism Studies.

“We propose a new approach to the design of disability objects, at once radical and unremarkable. We challenge the assumption that the role of design need be either to draw attention away from impairment or else to focus attention on disability. We reject this polarisation as utterly simplistic. We propose a more nuanced alternative that has so much more in common with design in other everyday contexts, given that disability is part of the fabric of everyday life. We advocate a meeting of disability and design in objects that are – created yet familiar; self-assured yet understated; unapologetic yet unremarkable.”

'Super Normal Design for Extra Ordinary Bodies' design manifesto

This manifesto is itself a clashing together of Rosemarie Garland-Thomson's critical disability studies and Naoto Fukasawa and Jasper Morrison's writings on industrial design. It also builds on both Pullin's Design meets disability (2009, The MIT Press), and Campbell's Contours of Ableism (2009, Palgrave Macmillan), each of which changed the perspectives from which design and disability were viewed.

This ethos is embodied in EPSRC-funded Hands of X, in which Pullin and Andrew Cook explored materials for prosthetic hands with mentors Eddie Small and Corinne Hutton. A palette of everyday materials was chosen for its qualities and familiarity – materials that neither attempted to imitate human skin nor alluded to super-human powers. A service was prototyped in Cubitts, a London eyewear retailer, in which wearers browsed and chose materials for their own hand, and we reflected with them on the sense of ownership that this engendered.

Following an exhibit at the Cooper Hewitt Smithsonian Museum in New York, in 2019 an exhibition 'Hands of X: design meets disability' at the V&A Dundee was co-created with the museum's curatorial team and mentors Andrew Gannon and Caitlin McMullan.

Of around 140,000 visitors, 7,000 contributed their experience and imagination to their own (actual or imagined) choice of prosthetic hand and the reasons behind this choice. This notion of choice, identity and shared decision-making has been taken in a Senior fellowship with The Healthcare Improvement Studies Institute.

Studio Ordinary’s manifesto was disseminated as a publication during the exhibition. The first major project under the Studio Ordinary name is 'Imagining Technologies for Disability Futures', a Wellcome Trust funded collaboration that will bring humanities-, disability-, and design-led perspectives to augmentative communication. In an area more usually clinically and technically framed, we will be prototyping alternative futures with our mentors. Also in Studio Ordinary, Teodor Mladenov, Senior Lecturer in Education & Social Work, is researching and critiquing contemporary disability policy and Katie Brown's PhD is relating Super Normal design to hearing aids.


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