A Catalyst for Innovation: (dis)Ability Design Studio Debuts

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Two people in wheelchairs sit at a conference table
Adam Bleakney and Deana McDonagh, PhD, are the (dis)Ability Design Studio co-directors at the Beckman Institute for Advanced Science and Technology at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. The studio serves as a place for collaboration on inclusive innovations. (Photo courtesy of the Beckman Institute)

A hands-free “wheelchair of the future.” A lightweight, comfortable, and collapsible personal aisle chair. Custom-made, 3D-printed wheelchair racing gloves. These are a few of the innovative designs developed by researchers for people with disabilities at the Beckman Institute for Advanced Science and Technology at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign (UIUC).

To further develop creative projects such as these, a new lab centered on imagination and immersion is available on the UIUC campus. Dubbed the (dis)Ability Design Studio, the space empowers individuals who benefit from this unique thinking to become the driving voices behind these projects, giving them the capacity to design, engineer, research, and innovate, says Adam Bleakney, studio co-director, research affiliate, School of Art & Design lecturer, and head coach of the UIUC wheelchair track team.

The studio stands out as a model of how research and innovation can intersect to leverage unique perspectives toward a shared goal, he says. It features soft lighting, pastel-colored art depicting nature, food and water bowls for service animals, a cuckoo clock that helps mark the passage of time for people who are visually impaired, and a conference table with wheelchairs and walkers with seats.

“If you spend all your life being excluded and being the odd one out, this is the space that welcomes you as an equal,” says Deana McDonagh, PhD, professor of industrial design, empathic design research strategist, and studio co-director.

McDonagh brought her vision of the studio to life after being recognized with the 2022 Beckman Institute Spirit and Vision Award, which came with $150,000 in grant funding.

“I am creating a space where people with a different lived experience … stop being people that are studied, measured, researched — they become contributors to knowledge as equals,” McDonagh says.

PURE Inspiration

The momentum behind the (dis)Ability Design Studio comes from collaboration on the wheelchair of the future between McDonagh, Bleakney, and other researchers in the Human Performance and Mobility Maker Lab (HPML).

Known as PURE, the acronym for Personalized Unique Rolling Experience, the device operates like a Segway, where the user balances on a ball in the center of the chair, moving hands-free and laterally, Bleakney says. The researchers developed PURE over the last five years with grant funding from the National Science Foundation.

Bleakney says the goal behind PURE is to extend the experiences and capabilities in the lives of daily wheelchair users — allowing, for example, a person with paraplegia to do activities with unoccupied hands, such as crossing the street while holding the hand of a loved one. 

In the (dis)Ability Design Studio, the concept of person-first design is prioritized — the user comes before the technology. As such, products designed for people with disabilities are developed by them, rather than by people without disabilities.

The studio works in collaboration with HPML within the university’s Division of Disability Resources & Education Services (DRES). 

Whereas HPML is utilized for developing prototypes — housing 3D printers, sewing machines, drill presses, and glue — the studio is a space for brainstorming, collaborating, and outlining projects, and it serves as a pathway to bring ideas from DRES to a variety of interdisciplinary backgrounds, such as industrial design, business, and engineering.

“Every step of the way, from idea to development, through testing and validation, the driver is the user,” Bleakney says.

This article was published in our March 2023 issue.