Detroit students design accessible products, from menstrual cycle apps to better walkers

From electronics to cookware, many of the products used in everyday life are developed for able-bodied individuals. But what about people who don’t have the use of one of their five senses? Students at Detroit’s College for Creative Studies (CCS) are coming up with innovative solutions, through design.

In a Product Design class, students are given a simple, yet broad prompt: “design a product for a disabled person.” The class discusses different types of barriers to accessibility, from sight impairment to being an older adult, and breaks down the challenges that may come for people, daily. From there, they let research, design, and of course, their imaginations, do the rest.

A design class at the College for Creative Studies is challenging students to consider, and create, more accessible products. Photo: Nick Hagen.

When Grace Baker thought about blind people, her mind went to women, like her. She wondered how accessible menstrual products are, and was surprised when she found out the results: they aren’t.

“I couldn’t believe that there were no products that were made with Braille on them, or made to be used in an accessible manner for someone that can’t see them,” says Baker, who graduated from CCS this year.

During her research process, Baker interviewed three blind women to learn about their difficulties with the products they use while menstruating. One woman, who is colorblind, can’t see the color red, but knew she saw something dark on her underwear. To confirm what it was, she had to ask her mom. In her research, not knowing when a cycle is beginning is a major problem for blind women, which goes beyond the products being accessible or not.

“A lot of my professors were like, ‘oh, isn’t this just kind of an easy fix, though? You just put Braille on those products,’” Baker, a Dearborn resident, explains. “And when I really thought about it, I was like, ‘no’. They can’t tell if their cycle has started or ended most of the time because it’s completely visual.”

After realizing this additional roadblock in blind women’s experiences, Baker took her design a step further. She still designed pads and tampons with Braille on them, indicating the product type (pad, liner, or tampon) and the absorbance level. Additionally, she prototyped an app that uses your phone’s back camera to detect if there’s blood on your underwear, or not. The app also has built-in accessibility functions like a text-to-speech reader and notifications of an expected cycle start date, notifications to change the product, and ways to log symptoms.

Grace Baker’s innovative designs include an app to make menstrual products more accessible. Photo supplied.

The project, Baker says, made her more aware of accessibility issues and she eventually wants to take the project from ideation to creation.

“When I first started doing this project, I felt really bad that I had never thought about this being an issue before. I kind of took it for granted,” says Baker. “I can’t imagine going through sixth grade and puberty blind. It definitely opened my perspective a lot.”

Vidit Singh saw a chance to take an accessibility product and make it better. Photo: Nick Hagen.

Though Vidit Singh, another CCS recent graduate, didn’t relate to his project as Baker did, he found passion in improving something partially accessible. While in the Product Design class, Singh Googled “what are some problems that exist among seniors?” He discovered that material things weren’t the problem.

“It wasn’t about the product, it was about the fear of falling,” says Singh, who determined that a restructuring of the common walker is a solution to help older adults.

“Even with the walker, the fear of falling was there. For seniors, it was that split second of getting up and getting down, which was the most fearful in the event where falls among seniors would happen.”

To gain more insight, Singh regularly visited St. Patrick’s Senior Center in Midtown where he observed and interviewed residents about their walkers, how they felt about the structure, and what could be improved to ease their fears. Singh’s professor also lent him a walker so he could observe his use, firsthand.

After his sketching and ideation process, Singh created a walker in his metal shop class. The walker was made more accessible by allowing a walker bar to slowly move up and down, to further assist its user by helping them keep their balance. The walker also allows users to maintain good posture while walking, instead of slouching, as many do.

“I took it to the senior citizens’ home and once they tested it, I realized there’s so much to improve, but that fear was minimized,” says Singh.

Fear also lies among the blind when it comes to cooking, and similar to Singh, Taylor Spencer’s goal is also to minimize her subjects’ fear of being in the kitchen while being able to use cookware that isn’t just for the blind, but for anyone.

Taylor Spencer designed a cookware set with increased accessibility. Photo supplied.

“With these products, if I live with a visually-impaired partner or spouse, I wouldn’t have to buy them separate pans. Doing that demeans one person and makes us feel like we’re different kinds of people, which I just kind of think is wrong,” says Spencer, of Rochester Hills.

While researching, Spencer, another recent graduate, narrowed down the five most common fears of cooking while blind: time, temperature, pan location, spoon nesting, and being hands-on. These are the five points she catered to her cookware set to.

The set, which includes two skillets, two pans, one pot, lids, and a steamer, all lined with an exaggerated rim to help the hand guide the cookware. Additionally, the cookware is made of cast iron, so that the heat remains at the bottom and doesn’t travel to the handle, so visually-impaired cooks can keep their hands on the pan, if need be. A pullback timer mechanism is also built into the products so that cooks can know when their food is ready; in addition to a built-in internal thermometer that moves around the rim indicating a certain temperature. With the hopes that design moves in a universal and inclusive direction, Spencer says that this project was an enlightening experience.

“These products are really important to get out on the market because they benefit everyone,” she says. “I think products are about people,” she says. “When you’re designing its accessibility, or how beautiful it looks, all those things are great. But if it doesn’t make a person feel like a person, because they can’t use it, then what did you make it for?”

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