Best in class: innovative design competition shines spotlight on spinal injuries – Bolt Burdon Kemp

  • Bolt Burdon Kemp relaunch competition to find new generation of product designers to transform the lives of those living with disability.
  • The specialist law firm seeks to highlight a disappointing disparity between the needs of those with spinal injuries and the products currently available for them.
  • “Designers who have wheelchair users in mind have the power to make an unprecedented difference to the lives of all who use them.” Raquel Siganporia, Partner and head of the Spinal Injury team at Bolt Burdon Kemp.

When you have a spinal injury, living in a world built for the able-bodied can be difficult and frustrating. Even the simplest tasks from changing a lightbulb to making a cup of tea can be made harder when you no longer have the mobility, dexterity or sensation that you used to. It’s therefore imperative that, when products are designed, the needs of people with disabilities are taken into account.

It’s this specific issue that is highlighted in the ‘Getting Back on Track’ student design competition by specialist lawyers Bolt Burdon Kemp. The competition opens for entries on 7th October 2019, giving students the opportunity to showcase their design nous and commercial awareness while directly engaging with the specific needs of people with spinal injuries.

Empathetic design

Open to undergraduate and postgraduate students, the competition asks design students to reimagine everyday products to better cater for people with spinal injuries. Students are asked to think innovatively to come up with a new product idea, a new approach to an everyday product or task, or a reimagining of an existing product. Students will be judged on the originality and commercial viability of their idea as well as how well they consider the specific and unique needs of people with a spinal injury.

As young product designers of the future prepare to enter the working world, this competition will hopefully encourage them to do so with a keener understanding of the importance of inclusive design. For those with a spinal injury, it can be encouraging to know that the new generation of product designers are already thinking about the way they can better cater to the needs of people with disabilities.

The judging panel includes:

  • Christa Dyson, trustee for the Spinal Injuries Association, mentor for the Back Up Trust and Patient Representative on the Scientific Advisory Board for Stoke Mandeville Spinal Research. Christa is also partially paralysed from the mid-chest down.
  • Dr Ross Head, Product Design Manager for the Cerebra Innovation Centre and Senior Research Fellow for the University of Wales Trinity Saint David.
  • Ian Hoskings, club chairman, vice coach and player for Stoke Mandeville Wheelchair rugby club and running the Wheelchair Rugby Experience. Ian was injured in 2004 and has no movement or sensation from the chest down.
  • Lady-Marie Dawson-Malcolm, Regional Peer Support Officer for the Spinal Injuries Association and a member of a number of Access Panels. Lady-Marie sustained a C5/6 complete spinal cord injury due to domestic violence in 1992.
  • Raquel Siganporia, Partner and head of the Spinal Injury team at Bolt Burdon Kemp and Trustee at the Spinal Injuries Association. Raquel was paralysed at T6-T7 aged 11 following an incident of medical negligence.

“I strongly feel that the only way to make the world a more accessible place for those in wheelchairs is to highlight the difficulties faced by those who are reliant on them,” said Raquel Siganporia of Bolt Burdon Kemp. “Designers who have wheelchair users in mind have the power to make an unprecedented difference to the lives of all who use them.”

Dr Ross Head, Product Design Manager at the Cerebra Innovation Centre added: “It is great to be involved with a high-profile design competition like this, and a great honour to be asked to be a judge! I am excited to be able to help and inspire young designers to design for sectors that they might not have given much thought to in the past.”

A new approach to wheelchairs

Last year’s winner, Kristen Tapping, created an innovative wheelchair design she called the ‘Moveo’. In her research phase, she identified three key problems with current wheelchairs: a bulky frame, the proximity of the wheel to the manoeuvring rail, and lack of breathable, lightweight and affordable materials.

She also acknowledged some of the common issues faced by people with a spinal injury, including poor dexterity in their hands, an inability to regulate their body temperature and difficulty controlling posture due to lack of core muscles.

When designing, Kristen first sought to separate the wheel from the manoeuvring rail and used a spur gear to do so. This innovative use of a spur gear also meant the user could now move the wheelchair by pulling backwards rather than forwards, while also needing a fraction of the strength typically required for regular wheelchairs.

Kristen’s idea also considered the weight and affordability of the materials she used. One of the main materials she sought to use was forged carbon composite – a versatile, eco-friendly version of carbon fibre that is highly mouldable, lightweight, durable and a third of the price of carbon fibre. She also chose abrasion-resistant Infinergy® E-TPU for both the rail, rim and seating and Schoeller®-PCMTM textiles for optimal thermal regulation.

As well as being an impressive addition to her portfolio, the idea saw her win £3000 in prize money – including £2000 for her university, the London South Bank University – as well as a week’s internship at the research centre of neurological injury charity Cerebra.

Of her experience, Kristen said: “I entered the competition to take on the challenge of designing a product for someone in a different situation than myself. Half my time was spent in primary and secondary research to discover the challenges facing people with a spinal injury.

“I’ve seen many products made for this population segment that are very functional but tend to look bulky, with abundant exposed joinery and without much thought to user experience. I wanted to add a design touch to create a product that users will be proud to show off while helping them integrate into everyday social culture.”

Why design makes all the difference

As Kristen’s idea demonstrates, making small but considered changes to an existing design could make an impactful difference to the experience of the end user. When product designers spend the time understanding the limitations and difficulties faced by their target user, they can begin to design products that could change people’s lives. This competition seeks to encourage the product designers of the future to re-examine their approach to product design in the hope that, in the future, accessibility and inclusivity always come built in.

Spinal Injuries Association trustee Christa Dyson said: “Combine bright minds with some creative thinking, add into the mix emerging technologies and who knows what the future possibilities will be for people living with a spinal cord injury. I’m excited to be invited to judge the 2020 BBK Design competition and find out.” For more information, visit the competition page here: https://www.boltburdonkemp.co.uk/getting-back-track-competition/

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