Disability and Relevant Design, Center for Innovation in Teaching and Learning, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

Disability and Relevant Design

Deana McDonagh

School of Art and Design


Lydia Khuri

University Housing


Susann Heft Sears

Disability Resources and Educational Services


Disability + Relevant Design began as a pilot project with the main goal of raising awareness of how Product Design can positively impact daily experiences through people’s interactions with products within the material landscape. Graduate (n=6) and sophomore level (n=20) product design students were partnered with students with disabilities (n=23), who were studying diverse subjects outside design, to develop individually appropriate products for people with disabilities. This was not a traditional research relationship but one in which a meaningful relationship was developed (rather than researcher/subject, they developed designer/life-expert roles). The life-expert users became co-creators of knowledge. Utilising ethnographic and empathic research methods, the designers primarily developed products for their student with disabilities partner who was a volunteer participant and not enrolled in the class. The study included students with a variety of disabilities: Amputation, Cerebral Palsy, Dysreflexia, Muscular Atrophy, Muscular, Dystrophy and Retinitis Pigmentosa.

In order to facilitate the full participation of people with disabilities in the designing process, we need to focus initially on the authentic needs of the individual, gathering information through a variety of methods including observation and recordings. Evaluation of the changing cultures and processes unique to this group of people with disabilities provides insight for greater exchange of ideas and teamwork in co-creating solutions that can provide benefits to the entire population. These steps provide the foundation for increasing economic development and competitiveness by promoting innovation in creativity education and practice in both people with disabilities and able-bodied population by removing the barriers that exclude people with disabilities from the creative process. This is both radical and timely.