The Importance of Inclusion in Industrial Design

How can designing inclusively shape society and culture for the better?


B Johnson

3 years ago | 5 min read

There has been a need for inclusively designed products as long as people have walked this earth. A wheelchair design dating back to 1565, the development of Braille in 1821, and the creation of glasses in the 13th century are all clear examples of humanity’s attempts to fulfill the need for assistive products (Anderson; Miller; ZEISS).

However, modern policy has yet to recognize the importance of developing and overseeing the accessibility of products. Case in point, the Americans with Disabilities Act prevents and punishes exclusion in technology, publicly funded spaces, services, and employment, but neglects the regulation of physical products.

The distinct lack of regulation on accessibility and inclusivity of products in market has created a world where large populations of people are excluded from using these products.

It is clear that the world is still severely lacking in policy that ensures physical products are regulated for accessibility at the scale necessary to make truly impactful change.

Victor Papanek, the renowned Austrian product design teacher and writer, pointed out the absence of assistive and inclusive product designs in his controversial and hugely influential 1975 book, Design for the Real World: Human Ecology and Social Change:

Over the last ten or so years there has been a great proliferation of exercising devices…But exercising vehicles specifically designed for children with cerebral palsy, paraplegia or quadriplegia, myasthenia gravis, and other debilitating diseases began to appear only late in 1983 on the market in the United States.(Papanek, 129).

This isn’t to say that the assistive technology field hasn’t grown over the 40 years since Papanek wrote this — it has. Forbes projects that the assistive technology market will grow to $26 billion by 2024, up a whopping 70% from the $18.4 billion market size in 2017 (McCue).

It is clear that current product designs for persons with disabilities are not truly designed for their needs.

Instead, these products are designed for caretakers and environments, manifested in the industry through impersonal and ugly designs. Walkers, wheelchairs, lifts, canes, and medical trapezes are all designed products that emphasize sickness, not equity and enablement.

These products are “developed to assist caregivers in their care practices, not create an environment of normalcy and inclusion for those with disabilities” (Brodeson & Hanne, 269).

The disabled care system is currently built “to take into consideration the isolated lack of function…not the actual socio-material network related to the disabled people and their relatives. The focus is on what the disabled cannot do” (ibid).

The lack of humanity and aesthetics in the majority of designs of assistive products today continue to exclude and isolate persons with disabilities as “other” and as persons requiring specialized equipment to have normal interactions with the built world around them.

With over 40 million people in the U.S. living with a disability, assistive technology and products should be underpinning nearly every object we produce to ensure inclusivity at a maximum scale.

Instead, these assistive products are bandaid solutions designed for caretakers and non-inclusive environments, not the people they are intended to actually serve.

The absence of aesthetics in the designs of assistive products, coupled with its lack of integration into day-to-day objects, create a dichotomy between the intent and the outcome of these assistive objects.

Assistive technology and products are not integrated into the fabric of the way we design for people and have become “quick fixes” to try and mend an already broken system.

We don’t design inclusively as a standard practice; we design for many, then attempt to stuff inaccessibly built designs into narrow-minded accessibility frameworks.

Our world and our technology has been designed primarily for the abled and, in doing so, has excluded millions of people. This is the sole hypothesis of the social model of disability:

… that people are disabled by barriers in society, not by their impairment or difference. Barriers can be physical, like buildings not having accessible toilets.

Or they can be caused by people’s attitudes to difference, like assuming disabled people can’t do certain things.(

When we design with a majority in mind, we design exclusively. Designing inclusively does not mean checking off a box once the product is “finished” to make sure it meets accessibility guidelines; it means designing for the marginalized and underrepresented from the outset.

This brings to bear the question: what does it mean to create wholly inclusive products and experiences in our modern world? It means designing our everyday objects such that they can be used by everyone — regardless of ability or inability.

It means that we design for one and extend that case to many. It means that we must collaborate with historically marginalized groups of people to widen our own perspectives and create truly inclusive products alongside those who have been excluded.

It also means really listening to the needs of those underserved by design; designers cannot keep making objects that fulfill a completely imagined need.

These attempts at creating “ ‘disability dongles’: A well intended elegant, yet useless solution to a problem we never knew [disabled persons] had” (Smith) are demoralizing and demeaning to the disabled population and demonstrate a lack of listening to the actual needs of the people designers are designing for.

When objects are designed inclusively, we add a whole range of value for excluded persons, while simultaneously preserving value for the existing client population.

Imagine how radically transformative and enabling an inclusively designed kitchen could be to someone who previously could only cook with the aid of an assistant.

If spatulas, pans, soap dispensers, sponges, and oven ranges were designed for every population of persons, we could infuse normalcy, equity, and humanity into a day-to-day experience that excluded persons were previously not able to experience.We must design for everyone — it is imperative.

It is challenging to imagine a world where every single product will be replaced by its inclusive counterpart, but with slight and gradual changes, inclusive industrial design can scale to a level unimaginable by today’s standards.

Through advocacy and implementation of inclusive design principles in product design, we can elevate the voices of the underserved through design’s influence.

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B Johnson







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