By Megan Jones
Despite the many sights in New York, it was children’s furniture that stopped Jason Nolan in his tracks.
While walking the city during a trip in 2008, the Toronto-based early childhood studies professor and some friends came across a striking Manhattan storefront. Behind the large window was a collection of kids’ furniture. Each piece was brightly coloured, each was different and individual. The group instinctively stopped and moved in closer.
As they examined the furniture through the glass, they realized it was handmade. Slowly, it dawned on them: the chairs and stools and rockers were custom pieces for kids with disabilities. Jason (photo centre) is autistic and one of his friends uses a wheelchair. The group was so fascinated that they knocked on the storefront’s door—they felt compelled to know more.
They were greeted by Alex Truesdell, founder of the Adaptive Design Association, who invited them up and explained her project to make custom adaptive devices for children. Jason’s first thought was that the furniture must be expensive. It was, after all, made and sold in New York. But, Alex told him, it was actually the opposite—they were giving pieces away for free if families couldn't afford them or if there was no funding. After all, they cost less to design and build because each object was made from cardboard.
As he walked out of the studio, Jason began conceptualizing how he could bring these devices to Canada. Over the next few months he returned to New York to learn from Alex and her team. After being taught how to make a few pieces, Jason started to build his own in Toronto.
Parents took immediate interest. “We had people saying ‘I need something right now,’” Jason explains. So he teamed up with a student at Ryerson University, where he works, and began to experiment with building on campus. They bought a set of tools and used cardboard from recycled student projects to make their first prototypes.
Initially, they designed a corner chair—essentially three pieces of cardboard in the shape of a two-faced, hollow tetrahedron. The chair was made custom for a three-year-old girl who could not sit up independently, and had previously needed an adult to hold her while she played in the sandbox. When the girl attempted to play with other kids while being held, they ignored her.
But once she could play on her own using the bright orange and yellow chair that Jason and his student designed, other kids no longer registered her difference. Within minutes, they began communicating, and brought their games to her. One of Jason’s graduate students documented the group of kids over the course of a year as part of her thesis. She found that during that time, the girl’s preschool classmates continued to modify their play without having to be asked.
For Jason, that is what adaptive design is all about: changing the environment the child is in, as opposed to changing the child. “For me, children aren’t disabled, I’m not disabled,” he says. “Society disables us. The problems that children with special needs have are created by society. Either by how we physically build the space, or how we engage other people.”
To Jason, cardboard is the best material to use because “it’s the greatest visual metaphor,” he says. “It’s a discarded thing. And people with disabilities are largely discarded.”
But it also has practical advantages. Cardboard is available essentially anywhere in the world, he explains, and it doesn’t necessarily require expensive tools to build with. Without scissors or a blade, someone could rip cardboard using their hands. Without access to glue, a would-be builder could use leftover rice water as an adhesive.
“It’s not got any sort of colonialist baggage. It’s equal for us all. But it’s also reminding us that we should be looking at all the objects in our lives to figure out how we can change them to be useful for us.”
Despite its potential simplicity, very few people are doing adaptive design, and designers are geographically spread out. Jason and his students at Ryerson work closely with Alex's design association in New York—the professor recently joined their board of directors—but for the most part groups are few and far between. One of Jason’s goals is to create a global social network so that everyone experimenting with designs can communicate. He recently submitted a research proposal to build an adaptive design studio in Ghana. Earlier, the Ryerson Lab was visited by students from Japan. But, Jason says, innovation moves too quickly for groups to be in occasional contact.
“It’s not enough just to get information out,” he says. “We have to have a two-way continuum. As soon as someone learns something from me, they’re going to say, ‘That’s nice. I have a better idea.’”
Today, Jason directs the EDGE Lab in a newly renovated workspace in the Bell Trinity Square Building behind the Eaton Centre. He still works with a group of students, but their designs have expanded beyond custom furniture. Jason’s space is littered with piles of prototypes, which he shows off enthusiastically: open source computer hardware, a shoe designed to warn people with low vision about tripping hazards, a 3-D printed prosthetic arm.
None of their designs are mass-produced or sold for profit yet. At any time, about a dozen people are working on designing and building, but since they’re students, the groups turn over nearly every 13-week semester. Parents requesting specific devices for their children go through the university. Jason’s biggest challenge is figuring out a way to harness enough builders to meet the volume demands from parents. “I’d love to be running off two or three of these a day,” he says, pointing at a corner chair. “But we’re not there yet.”
Still, Jason hopes that some objects will be commercialized. One student, for example, recently created dollhouse–sized furniture that looks like the real-life pieces Jason and his team build. They are looking to mass-produce the toys at cost and sell them to daycares, with the hope that if children get used to playing with adaptive technologies from a young age, they won’t view them as a sign of difference later.
Jason also plans on outsourcing assembly of the real-life furniture as well. He’d like to be able to sell pieces to families at an affordable rate, not for profit. His ultimate goal is to work solely on design, and have someone else manage the business aspects.
Until then, he will continue to push for a change in attitudes by doing what he does best: making and creating. “Being autistic, I still primarily make sense of the world through physical exploration,” he says. “I communicate by making something for somebody.
“Everyone needs what I’m doing. We’re all going to need some kind of custom adaptation at one point in our lives. The difference is children with special needs can’t function without it.”
Photos by Annie Sakob and Jason Nolan