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3D Printing for Disability, Enabled by Design

Before the advent of industrialization, most objects were customized because they were made by hand. Mass production introduced the concept of ‘one size fits all.’ But it doesn’t — designing for everyone will always exclude someone.

A new customization movement has begun, but with frivolous choices: at Nike’s flagship store, you can design your own sneaker. What about deeper applications? What about customizing every day objects for people with mobility impairments, blindness, or amputees?

Enabled By Design is a nonprofit which got its start when co-founder Denise Stephens (see video above) was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. Suddenly, her comfort and mobility depended on a number of products provided by the UK’s National Health Service. For all that socialized medicine is a great boon to citizens, its products are made in the most cost-efficient ways possible — mass produced from the cheapest reliable materials and all made one way for everyone. Stephens, who had a passion for interior design, suddenly found herself living in a home full of white hospital plastic. Moving with crutches meant using ugly devices which made loud clicking sounds with every step, and presented new challenges — how do you use a smartphone while holding a crutch? Enabled By Design helps disabled people find or make the best solutions for their individual needs. But a new technology is making even more possible.

Bishop & Campbell at 3Dability panel

Between Campbell and Bishop are two prototypes of a tea kettle custom designed for a man without forearms or hands.

3D printing is one of the hottest new technologies. Using print-on-demand devices capable of molding three-dimensional objects on the fly, with the right materials almost anything is possible. Sunday at SXSW Interactive the 3D Printing for Disability, led by Carrie Bishop and Dominic Campbell of FutureGov, explored a few of the newest possibilities.

Finger Cactus fingertip utensils

These ‘finger cactus’ fingertip utensils improve food handling for the mobility impaired.

3D printing can bring style and fashion back into the lives of the disabled. While functionality is important, white industrial plastic is ugly and unpleasant to use, limiting one of the most important ways humans express their personality. 3D printers can create custom colored crutches that are designed to be silent, or colorful and unique covers for prosthetic limbs. Taking it a step further, entirely new devices can be invented like custom utensils which are thicker or attach to the fingertips, providing greater independence for the mobility impaired at meal time.

More importantly, this technology moves us away from one size fits all. Since everyone experiences their disabilities differently, everyone also needs different solutions. A custom tea kettle which fits one person might be a terrible alternative for another, even if they have the same basic condition. Enabled By Design hopes in the future to act as government-funded disability consultants who would help people make their lives more comfortable and accessible while still maintaining aesthetics. Sometimes this might mean a custom-printed device, and others just knowing where to buy an existing object that fits better then the ones made by government vendors.

Customization can enhance medical devices like crutches, but we can’t yet print entire objects strong or durable enough to hold human weight. Like all new innovations, the field is changing rapidly and what is impossible today may be easy tomorrow.

As 3D printing itself becomes accessible, we can expect to see many more frivolous uses. The 3D Ability panel showed SXSW the truly important potential applications of this new development.

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Kit OConnell

Kit OConnell

Kit O’Connell is a gonzo journalist and radical troublemaker from Austin, Texas. He is the Associate Editor and Community Manager of Shadowproof. Kit's investigative journalism has appeared in Truthout, MintPress News and