“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 SHED 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. Similarly, his research focuses on creating “functional equivalency” for older adults and physically disabled people—the idea that everyone should be able to carry out the tasks of everyday life.
For example, in one study, Feathers and students are examining human use of touchscreen displays, which are now embedded into smartphones, navigation devices, personal computers, ATMs, and many other technologies. But the displays, which rely on human touch to function, are impossible or painful to use for quadriplegics and individuals with poor manual dexterity.
“We are doing research that will help people overcome physical limitations and prevent strain and injury in routine living,” said Feathers, who holds degrees in both anthropology and engineering. “Making possible a task that someone once believed to be impossible also provides an enhanced sense of self-worth and greater independence.”
Feathers hopes soon to apply his research philosophy to a new partnership—tentatively named the Living Laboratory for Successful Aging—with geriatricians at Weill Cornell Medical College. The proposed lab would be a center for usability testing on furnishings and assistive technologies designed to enhance older adult safety, function, and health. Under the direction of Rosemary Bakker, research associate in the Weill Program for Environmental Geriatrics, it also would raise awareness of the accessibility needs of seniors and spur innovations in homecare products.
“A key goal in the lab will be to conduct the usability studies that will inform better product design and ultimately ensure the health and well-being of older adults,” Feathers said. “With the planned emphasis on interior design and the built environment, the lab will be a great fit for Design and Environmental Analysis students and faculty interested in these challenges.”