Saturday, November 19, 2016

Empathy, by design

In my decades-long career as a physical therapist, I witnessed and celebrated the evolution of what has become Universal Design.  Everything from a cushioned handle on a potato peeler to wheelchair-accessible sinks in public restrooms came about because someone identified a need and cared enough to act.

One of those people is Patricia Moore. As a young industrial designer in the 1970s, Patricia was the only woman in her workplace. Frustrated by her colleagues' emphasis on creating products for healthy, average men, she struck out on her own. She borrowed her grandmother's clothes and some clunky shoes, put in earplugs and got some glasses that distorted her vision. And she hit the streets.

In three years, she visited over 100 cities in the US and Canada disguised as an elderly woman. Sometimes she used a walker or a cane. Sometimes she dressed as if homeless, other times as if quite wealthy. She learned a lot, not just about the difficulties of normal aging or accessing the world with a physical disability. She also experienced first-hand the ugly truths of how people of different social classes are valued.

Her experiment yielded results. She started her own design firm and pushed for what she called 'empathetic design.' Patricia is now hailed as one of the founders of Universal Design, the industry standard.

Her unconventional approach has improved the lives of millions of people around the world. All because she cared enough to act.

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