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Common Five Fatal Flaws of Designers for the Adaptive Community – Erik Kondo

Updated: Feb 5, 2023

Infographic explaining the definition of "fatal flaw" using pigeons.
Definition of "fatal flaw"

The Five Fatal Flaws refer to able-bodied designers innovating products for the Adaptive Community. But these flaws are not exclusive to able-bodied designers. Having a disability doesn’t guarantee that you will not make some or all of the same mistakes too. My purpose in highlighting these issues is not just to be critical, but to inform in the hopes that awareness of these problems will foster change.

  1. Not taking into account how your implicit bias as an able-bodied person effects your understanding of the problem. As an able-bodied person, you view the problems faced by people with disabilities through your personal perspective. Your perspective affects both the problems that you “see” and the solutions you come up with, and makes it difficult to account for the new problems that your solution will likely create. You only understand a small slice of the problem and are unaware of the many nuances involved.

  2. Assuming that wheelchairs and wheelchair users are monolithic groups. Not taking into consideration that wheelchair users are a diverse population, and the wheelchairs that they use are vastly different in terms of design and functionality. There is a large difference between the function and dynamics of a hospital style wheelchair (primarily attendant propelled) and an ultra-light wheelchair (primarily self-propelled). Solutions that work for one type of wheelchair don’t necessarily apply to other types.

  3. Infatuation with your current design idea. Once you have decided that you have the “solution” to the problem, you tend to seek confirmation and avoid contrary opinions. You are willing to slightly alter your project, but not make radical changes. You have fallen in love with your design more than actually solving the problem.

  4. Ineffective sampling of the population of intended users, You talk to a few people and think that these people provide an accurate representation of the adaptive community/marketplace. And/or you use surveys and interview questions/methods that don’t provide you with actionable information. You select test subjects who are unable or unwilling to provide constructive criticism and negative feedback. The test subjects seek to be pleasing and are caught up into your enthusiasm for your project.

  5. Not taking into consideration how the economic factors of the Adaptive Community differs from that of the general population. Products for sale for people with disabilities are heavily affected by insurance companies and government agencies and regulations. In addition, the economics are influenced by the presence of oligopolies, and a customers base who is many times uneducated about products and living on a fixed income.

There are three quotes which I think are useful for providing considerations for avoiding these five fatal flaws. (1) “If I had an hour to solve a problem I'd spend 55 minutes thinking about the problem and five minutes thinking about solutions.” - Albert Einstein

Einstein's point is to spend the time it takes to really understand the AT problem you are trying to solve. Don't jump to conclusions based on your bias and societal perceptions of the lives of people with disabilities. (2) “There are no solutions, there are only trade-offs" - Thomas Sowell

(3) "First, do no harm" - Hippocrates

It is common for able-bodied designers to focus only on the perceived benefits of their innovation with little regard for unintended negative consequences and drawbacks. This typically occurs because they examine only the slice of the disabled person's life that involves the "problem", and not the other areas of the person's life that will be impacted by the presence of the "solution".

For example, if you permanently modify a person's wheelchair to solve a particular problem, that modification will effect the performance/weight/configuration/etc. of the wheelchair in every other circumstance that it is used. It is imperative to not cause unintended harm due to a lack of understanding of the person's whole life.


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