Written by Victoria Lanteigne, Senior Accessibility Consultant
Every April during National Fair Housing Month, those of us on SWA’s Accessibility Team like to partake in activities that remind us why accessible design is so important – both in housing and otherwise. This year, I had the exciting opportunity to be part of a guest jury for a design competition with Marymount University in Arlington, Virginia. The fourth annual Strong by Design-athon is a project exhibition that aims to raise awareness about the needs of veterans with disabilities and inspire the design, technology, and healthcare communities to embrace Universal Design.
This year’s winning product was the GR-5, a beverage vessel designed for veterans with disabilities. Upon first glance, the GR-5 may seem like just a quirkily-designed travel mug, but the student-lead team from Marymount University applied innovative design strategies that made this prototype a standout. For starters, the product’s design mimics the shape and feel of military machinery which provides a sense of comfort and familiarity for veterans who once used this type of equipment on a daily basis. In addition, the GR-5 features a rubber grip, a handle that is easily used with prosthetics, and a polymer that turns red when liquid is hot and blue when liquid is cold to protect users who may have lost sensation in their hands. To top it off, the team made the astute decision to add a pill dispenser at the bottom of the vessel; which is easily operated by pressing a large button located on top of the handle.
I was thrilled to join a panel of five jurors, alongside two architects who specialize in accessible design and two occupational therapists who work with wounded veterans on a daily basis. We were tasked to evaluate project submissions that aimed to design, prototype, and market a product that proposed solutions to the health and mobility challenges veterans with disabilities face on a regular basis. While we commended all eight of the project teams for their innovative proposals, our jury unanimously selected the GR-5 team as the clear winner. The architects loved the sleek look; I was impressed by the universal application for people with a wide range of abilities; and the occupational therapists said that veterans would simply “feel happy” using this mug. We all agreed that the project team effectively delivered a thoughtful product, with realistic manufacturing possibilities and high potential for success.
The two-day exhibition brought together undergraduate and graduate students and faculty from the Marymount University Wilhelmina Boldt Interior Design Program and the Malek School of Health Professions, Physical Therapy Program, to collaborate on projects aimed towards improving the day-to-day activities and mobility of veterans with disabilities. Students worked closely with veterans and their advocates to research and design innovative interior styles and layouts for accommodating a broad range of abilities.
In addition to project proposals, the Strong by Design-athon included opportunities for students and participants to collaborate on empathy and problem-solving training exercises related to veterans with disabilities and Universal Design.
Assistant professor of interior design and event organizer Moira Denson noted, “Our goal is to use design thinking to go beyond stereotypes and build compassionate solutions from a broad group of community members.” According to Denson, the Design-athon is ultimately about teaching empathy and “how to engage the end-user in the design process.”
While focused on veterans with disabilities, the Design-athon ultimately underscored the ubiquitous value of Universal Design practices, calling into consideration the need to recognize all persons and abilities when creating products, services, technologies, and buildings. The event was an encouraging example of how a new generation of designers is considering a much broader spectrum of consumers, truly bringing the industry to the cusp of innovative thinking for inclusive design strategies.