Academic journal article Human Ecology

Lab Aims for 'Universal Design' for Wheelchairs and Assistive Devices

Academic journal article Human Ecology

Lab Aims for 'Universal Design' for Wheelchairs and Assistive Devices

Article excerpt

In recent decades, wheelchairs have swelled in size: place a modern wheelchair next to one from the 1970s, and it resembles a Hummer next to a go-kart.

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"We have gone from the 'Model-T'--the traditional Everest and Jennings hospital chair--to much larger motorized devices that have a bigger footprint and need broader space for turning and maneuvering," said David Feathers, assistant professor of design and environmental analysis.

The result is that existing accessibility standards are becoming obsolete, leaving some older adults and people who are physically disabled with fresh challenges to navigate their homes, workplaces, schools, transit systems, and other public environments.

To investigate the changing needs of wheelchair users, Feathers, along with research partners at the University at Buffalo and the University of Pittsburgh, is using 3-D modeling technology to develop a national database with details on the dimensions and maneuverability of the wide variety of wheeled assistive devices (not all of which have gotten bigger, Feathers notes, as some have become sleeker and lightweight). Study participants are measured alone and with their equipment by a sophisticated computer scanner that captures anthropometric measurements impossible to take with traditional methods.

Feathers hopes the data will inform product designers and architects as they design devices and spaces for people with limited mobility. He added that policymakers could use the findings when considering new or amended legislation to improve accessibility.

The wheelchair accessibility project is representative of a host of research endeavors conducted in Feathers's Simulation and Human Engineering in Design (SHED) Lab, which he manages along with collaborators Susan Ashdown, professor of fiber science and apparel design, and Alan Hedge, professor of design and environmental analysis.

In the SUED Lab, Feathers performs ergonomics and usability research in support of "universal design," an ethos that insists that all products and environments should be open to all people. …

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