Caregiving and Design

Author: Abhishek Ray (Architect) (Ashoka Lemelson Fellow)
Disability Research and Design Foundation
Matrika Design Collaborative (www.matrika.in)

The word “design” is often used as a verb defining the act of conceiving a solution for a problem and the result of this process makes the word “design” a noun defining the very product or plan creating the solution for the problem. A caregiver is defined as an individual who offers care and attention to a person and the act of doing so is defined as “care-giving”. The words “Design” and “Caregiver” although appearing to stand out as completely disparate definitions, are closely connected, as the act of care-giving can be aided by responsive design solutions for the individual offering care and concern and the subject of his or her attention.

The realm of design today is influenced by technology, which makes solutions more personalized and accessible to individuals and groups. Caregivers can tap this resource at various levels in confronting challenges faced in the act of care giving as designed technology can be customized to aid the person being offered care and assistance to perform basic and complex functions within the defined limitations owing to old age, disability or impairment. In addition to this the caregiver’s needs can be addressed through design solutions too, which allow the person to participate in a realm beyond the confined environment of care giving.

Design is often categorized as being high and low tech, which relates to the ease of operations, mode of assembly and the cost of a designed device or space. The design challenge in a country like India is very different, wherein solutions need to be low tech and have mass appeal to be implemented in scenarios owing to an economically diverse consumer base. Care giving, which is naturally ingrained in the ethos of the Indian socio-cultural fabric, can be compared to a mass need. Low cost design and technology thereby takes precedence and becomes the basic requirement for any intervention, which needs to address a larger economic base. However customization to suit the needs of each situation is essential as design challenges differ based on the kind and degree of assistance required. Therefore it is necessary for designers and caregivers to understand that the design of assistive devices with low tech and highly customized solutions can prove to be a greater design challenge than the implementation of high tech and standardized solutions.

The design of assistive devices for Caregivers and their subjects is a need-based solution which can have certain high tech interventions to allow people to perform and participate in activities that can accentuate their abilities. While most assistive devices are mobility devices, aids and appliances and other products to aid people with a certain form of disability or impairment, there can be new avenues for design intervention developed, which could support social and familial interaction for the care giver and the receiver.

With the advent of digital technology and hand held devices people are able to communicate and interact with individuals and other devices and develop a virtual social and functional network within the confines of their immediate environment. This revolutionary influx of high tech digital technology can be amalgamated with low-tech design solutions to create a hybrid, which would be contextual to support care giving in India.

Disability Research and Design Foundation has been an initiative based on the larger goal of socially responsive design development. We provide innovative design based solutions for people with disabilities by using tools such as architectural solutions, product design and product development. Advocating the need for Universal Design and Assistive Technology has been one of our forerunning principles to ensure an inclusive society in India.

Assistive Design remains in a nascent stage of development in India wherein such interventions are mostly seen in medical institutions, rehabilitation centers and on the drawing boards of institutes of design. The failure to percolate design and technology down to the masses can be attributed to various factors, which are primarily embodied at policy level. This flawed system has led to very little impetus on technological research and development, which leads to the lack of affordable assistive technology. Designers thereby depend more on active research through experimental design and post implementation analyses for ensuring that the designed product serves the intended purpose. Simulation and documentation of use of technology in the assistive design sector remains absent in India due to lack of instituted effort in understanding universal design and its impact.

Design methodologies at Disability Research and Design Foundation have been based on user centric studies with post implementation analyses in understanding usage and conformity of the designed product or space to challenges set at conception.  Our association with Architects and Industrial designers alongside people with various forms of disabilities has refined our approach and made it more pragmatic and affordable.

The concept of care giving has introduced a new dimension to the design challenges of assistive design whereby the gamut of users increases to the person offering assistance. An exemplification of this new user “group” can be done by associating words such as “user” and “operator” of the design solution provided. The word “user” refers to the person with a disability and the word “operator” to the caregiver. This would be the primary form of assistive device solution, which is user specific. Concurrently secondary solutions meant solely for the benefit of the caregiver and care giving as a practice can be developed after a needs analysis. To serve as an example, basic electronic surveillance can be integrated with a monitoring system to allow certain degrees of mobility for the care-giver using hand held devices.

A majority of this affordable technology cited here remains readily available in the Indian market. The innovation lies in assembling this kit of parts into a designed entity ready for use by an emerging group of individuals and their practice, which in this case are the “Caregivers”. The identification and formalization of this requisite will create a formal need based demand, which in turn can fuel design innovation and development of devices meant to transform the lives of the caregiver and the receiver.

Design and technology are catalysts for change, which can be, used to transform the care giving experience in order to ensure that the practice is beneficial for both the giver and the receiver.  While technology is ever evolving, design of the device and the environment remains the key to its integration for a socially responsive purpose.