Ever since I was a kid I have loved watching infomercials, particularly those for strange and oddly specific things. Everything did something even more fantastically, even more quickly, or somehow better than everything else before it. As I grew older I learned to be more skeptical, especially when it seemed to be something they were overselling. But then someone suggested a new angle from which to view infomercials, and it is a world I have become very passionate about—disability.
A good number of infomercials begin with someone, usually filmed in black and white, struggling to do a simple task.The actions of these paid actors are often over-exaggerated and seem silly. But then I realized that they only seemed silly because I was thinking of the actions through the perspective of an abled person. When I started thinking about what it would be like to have limited mobility, muscle weakness, or chronic pain, a lot of these products suddenly started to make some sense!
These products are only a few of the myriad of tools that people with disabilities use in their everyday lives. Even something as seemingly simple as a fork can be improved. Most people have a simple relationship with a fork. However, certain conditions, like tremors, can add complications. There are modified forks available—forks that are weighted, or even built with right angles to make them easier to grasp.
At the same time, it isn’t always easy for people with disabilities to find tools modified to fit their specific needs. This may be because the market for buying such tools is small, making it not particularly cost-effective to mass-produce, or perhaps it is due to the fact that buying and trying new tools takes time and resources. In fact, approximately one-third of assistive technology (which is defined as anything used to improve or maintain the functional capabilities of those with disabilities) is abandoned because it does not properly fit the individual’s needs.
It turns out the adoption of new technology is more successful if the individual is able to participate in the design and creation process. This is now rapidly becoming possible through the growth of 3D Printing.
The first patents for 3D printing machines were filed in the early 1980s. Since then there have been several different types of machines and processes created, which led to a shift from subtractive manufacturing (where creating something focused on the removal of material, like sculpting) to additive manufacturing. Subtractive manufacturing is still very common; however there are now also several different processes capable of creating a 3-D project. These are much like traditional 2-D printers, and although they are not technically printing 2-D images and layering them, the process can be thought of in a similar way, where each layer ends up being a cross-section of the finished product. Each layer is printed and seamlessly joined to the next, to create the final 3D product. Some printers melt or soften sheets, rods or droplets of material, while others use UV light to solidify liquid material.
Since 2010 the prices of 3-D printers have plummeted and there are now Kickstarters and companies that aim to have 3-D printers in homes that cost only hundreds–instead of thousands–of dollars. As the reliability and affordability of 3-D printers continue to improve, it will become more and more economically viable for households to self-manufacture their own inventions. And this is exactly what has the biggest and most positive implications for the world of people with disabilities.
The advent of 3D printing allows individuals to easily and much more affordably have custom pieces, tools, and utensils made for their specific needs, for their specific lives, and not those of some prototype made by someone who doesn’t have to use them every day. There are companies that will print out anything that you design, and websites to collaborate and share the models and designs you are working on. Thingiverse is already sharing designs such as pen-holders and package-openers which are incredibly useful to those with certain physical disabilities. Most importantly of all, having a say in the design process of assistive technology increases the chances of people getting devices they can actually use and won’t abandon.
When I think of infomercials of the future I still get incredibly excited, but now it is in a different way. I imagine infomercials that combine the collaborative and self-creative processes that 3-D printers can bring to those with disabilities. The future of assistive technology lies in downloading a new utensil instead of trying to find one already made. Having an affordable printer in the home and the combined brainpower of the creative internet is a huge advantage to the disabled community. Imagine what this means for the healing and overall mental, physical and emotional health for those who deal with their disability every day! The possibilities are truly limitless.
Have an idea for a tool you think might help others? Thingiverse encourages you to design and share!
Katie Klotzbach is a Midwestern transplant on the East Coast. She likes to take pictures of the urban decay graffiti, rollerblade and explore late at night, and play poker with interesting people. She is passionate about underrepresented groups of people and plans to go back to school to be able to do more about it. Contact her through her blog: ivy-and-twine.tumblr.com