Why Design is a Good Fit for People with Disabilities

Photo of a graphic designer working at her computer.Designers with disabilities from around the world were interviewed at length in 1999 about their childhoods, their education paths, their development of interest in design, their career development, and their professional practices. When asked if disability affected their practice of design in any way, the great majority told us that living creatively with disability had improved their practice of design. Specifically, here is what we gleaned from their comments:

"When asked if their own practice of design significantly differed in light of their disability from the practices of non-disabled designers, 88% said that it did. The majority of those also reported that they believed their practice was not only different, but that it was superior to what it would have been if they were nondisabled. This was not attributed to disability itself as a guarantee, but of how living with disability while thinking about improving designed spaces had heightened their thoughtfulness, determination, maturity, problem-solving skills, empathy, aesthetic consciousness, kinesthetic awareness and social justice in design. It was reported that the creative response to disability, not disability itself, is what improved one's expertise. Skills developed in strategies for living well with disability are skills which are fundamental to successful design."
(From Building a World Fit for People: Designers with Disabilities at Work This link will open a new browser window.)

It is only common sense. Those of us who live daily with disabilities have by nature become problem-solvers in spatial terms, problem-solvers in the use of products and tools, problem-solvers in the acquisition of information and knowledge, and problem-solvers in social interactions and negotiations.

  • This extra effort we make at problem solving is a result of our bodily differences, whether those differences are visible to others or not. Starting with our own bodies, we adapt, changing the environment where we can, changing systems where we can, so that we may live comfortably and successfully among our non-disabled family, friends, colleagues and communities.

  • We have a tendency to become naturally empathetic, because by the nature of our bodily or cognitive differences, we must interact with people unlike ourselves every day. Thus we understand the complexity and benefits of interdependence.

  • We also tend to have no time to waste. We often have to spend more time than the non-disabled on medical concerns, self-care concerns, and equipment concerns. So, we tend to make our professional work really count.

  • We tend to work at the outside edge of our abilities, because we have had to count the cost of achieving things with value. When asked if disability had restricted his professional practice in any way, one quick-witted architect simply said, "Yes. I do not do rubbish."

All of the above are valuable skills and characteristics for a designer to have, and they are valuable traits in an employee. They have become second nature to most of us with disabilities. These are skills that design professors love to see in their students. They are skills that are difficult to teach, because natural adversity, not a human instructor, is the master teacher of these skills. Designers with these skills will create environments, products and modes of communication that are rich in choice and depth of thought.

Those of us who have attended design school report that the work of our classmates improves when we are in studio together, because they are more apt to think of the needs of a broader range of users, and we are more apt to push both our peers and professors to make the professional stretch and begin practicing universal design in every stage of a project, not just as a tacked-on access issue at the end of a project that usually results in access that is inequitable, and often useless or ugly. The improvement we make in our educational programs continues with us into professional life, and our colleagues are challenged to design more humane and universal communities. Designers with disabilities have the passion, experience and education to become design activists and critics, and this spills over into our daily interactions with our communities, and often becomes broader than our work.

In reading about the lives of designers with disabilities at this website, the other way you will see that design careers are a good match for people with disabilities is that these careers provide a wide range of options for partial employment, intermittent employment, and self-employment, with many designers working from their own homes.

So, are we claiming that all people with disabilities should practice design professionally? Not at all. But no one should automatically exclude design from the options to consider because of disability alone. We are suggesting that all people with disabilities who are choosing to be part of their communities, practice design naturally, and more intensely, than do non-disabled people in general. Disability in and of itself won't make a person a great designer. But living creatively with disability will make a person a better designer, and that is a marketable skill.

Design is a good fit for people with disabilities!