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Hemmant Jha dreams of ‘true ergonomics’ to suit the disabled

Inclusivity is generally an afterthought in design, but this can be changed with 'design for all' interventions, says architect and industrial designer Hemmant Jha

Hemmant Jha at the Godrej Innovation Centre in Mumbai. Photo: Aniruddha Chowdhury/Mint
Hemmant Jha at the Godrej Innovation Centre in Mumbai. Photo: Aniruddha Chowdhury/Mint

Back in 2007, I had a start-up in Chicago, and there were six of us—architects, designers, engineers—generally a very curious bunch. One day we had a visitor. He had a spinal cord injury and was in a wheelchair. I still remember that when he came in through the door and sat at our table, it was the first time any of us had truly looked at a wheelchair. So we asked him if we, as fellow professionals, could look at his wheelchair and talk about it. And he said, of course. That was the first time I had a proper conversation about what it means to live and work out of a wheelchair.

About two years later, when I was teaching at the Institute of Design in Chicago, I brought in a wheelchair, asked for a volunteer to sit on it, and, without using his legs, go from the class to the restroom, which was on the same floor. We stood back and watched. It took him many tries to even open the door and leave the room—the door had a spring-loaded hinge; if you pulled it with one hand, it would just pull you to itself.

It’s almost as if by design we have created a built environment that is geared to people who have all their faculties intact. It’s not designed for little children, it’s not designed for the elderly. It’s certainly not designed for people with disabilities. And here I’m not just talking about India, I see the same thing in Chicago as well. There are very few places in the world that have actually become super inclusive.

How then can we be more inclusive in the design of everything? Some of the words that come to mind are designing with compassion and integrity. If you do that, then, by default, you will also consider people with disabilities.

The result of what we did in class was to have four teams design a wheelchair you could travel with and stow away in an aircraft’s overhead compartment. This is because wheelchairs don’t fit in the aisle of an aircraft, so they put you on a little cart that is narrow enough to fit.

In architecture or design school, you work with ergonomic standards that typically don’t include people with disabilities. Only when you get into a situation like designing a hotel that needs a wheelchair-accessible restroom do you think, wait what are the standards? To overcome this, we need what could be called “true ergonomics". This means you wouldn’t set multiple standards but a single standard that can work for everybody.

There are a few examples of this. The most popular one is a brand called Oxo. Many years ago, they were looking to design kitchen tools for people with arthritis. And rather than having a slim, slender handle, they created a thick handle. What they found, very quickly, was that even people without arthritis preferred using them because the effort required was much less.

This is going to make a lot of architects and designers unhappy, but I think change in our built environment can happen quite easily if architects and designers are invested in doing things the right way. Generally, I find they are very inclined to be open and welcoming to new ideas. But I find it ridiculous that people who are beautifully positioned to influence their clients and introduce these little interventions into the world have not come together and said this is something we should just do. We wouldn’t have to put the entire responsibility on the government or municipal bodies, which is what people usually do, if inclusivity was a part of every project. Never an extra, or an afterthought.

For instance, because they have such a large elderly population, many cars in Japan, even little vans, are designed to accommodate wheelchairs—the seats fold up cleverly. So the separation between non-disabled people and disabled people has been flattened significantly.

I don’t think what I’m proposing is difficult. It’s just a matter of a little switch going on somewhere so that when you start conceiving of a design, you think, “hey, I think I can broaden the range a little." If you’re designing for a 5ft, 6 inches tall person, why not broaden that out? It would be useful to introduce a straightforward and rigorous semester into the curriculum of first-year design and architecture students. A small amount of first-hand exposure to what it means to do the simplest of things when all your faculties are not intact is all it is going to take. We can talk and write about it all we want, but once you feel the visceral impact, there’s no going back.

Hemmant Jha trained as an architect and industrial designer. Until recently, he was chief design officer at Godrej & Boyce. Currently, his focus is on establishing design standards and building the structures and networks that can enable design-focused efforts to thrive in India.

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