April 12, 2011

The Scientist: Feathers Designs With the Handicapped In Mind

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For those wheelchair-bound, a simple task like flipping the light switch can be a challenge if it is placed too high on the wall. It’s issues like these that Prof. David Feathers, design and environmental analysis, addresses through his varied research.Feathers’ research focuses on ergonomics and biomechanics, two interrelated fields. Ergonomics, as Feathers described, is the study of work, looking at humans as they interact with a larger system and how to redesign those systems to optimize human well-being and overall system performance. He explained biomechanics as an understanding of the forces that are being placed on the tissues of the human body. In relation to ergonomics, biomechanics is the study of how larger systems impact our bodies and how stresses on the body can be minimized.Within the realm of these fields, Feathers focuses on people with disabilities. He studies the mechanisms behind coping strategies, using them to design products and environments. When redesigning products and spaces, Feathers said, “We do not look at ways [people with disabilities] are different than us, but ways that they are homogeneous to us; how do you design products and environments that can capture that diversity and still create equivalency in that terms of use.”      One of Feathers’ current research projects involves studying the biomechanics of multitouch displays, such as the iPad. Feathers’ studies the musculoskeletal concerns of using the new ‘smart surfaces’ and how people with diverse musculoskeletal or neurological issues adapt to use those types of products. Feathers explained a person with median nerve deficit may not be able to move down a page on the iPad because they cannot scroll. However, that person might turn their wrist and in effect use the side of their pinky to scroll down a page. Feathers looks at these types of coping mechanisms and attempts to figure out ways those dissimilar touch patterns can be made to be equivalent in future models of the iPad and other multi-touch products.On a larger scale, Feathers researches how to create more accessible environments for wheelchair users. Drawing from his research findings, Feathers has written the National Anthropometric Database for Wheelchair Mobility, which suggests changes to accessibility guidelines for functional reach and elements of the built environment. Feathers addresses these issues in his database; one suggestion includes elevating outlets on the wall because many are too set low for wheelchair -bound persons to comfortably reach them.Working with Weill Cornell Medical School, Feathers studies biomechanics as it relates to chronic pain. Understanding the biomechanics of performing everyday tasks, from getting out of bed to walking on different surfaces can help to identify the sources and possible treatments for unexplained persistent pain. Better ergonomically designed public transportation, Feathers discusses, can reduce the stigma against disabled riders. Feathers explains that if buses were redesigned with no-step entries, wheelchair users could get onto them just as easily as any walking-capable person.Ergonomics is becoming an increasingly important factor in product development and business. Feathers explains, “Universal design in general is something that is becoming more valued.” Good ergonomically designed products lead to increased market share and consumers who want to buy the products, Feathers points out.Feathers sees the field of ergonomics growing and encompassing a number of other fields. Feathers said, ”There are just not enough ergonomists to go around. It would be great to have students understanding human anatomy and physics of human motion as it relates to design – we’d have better, easier to use products out there.”

Original Author: Liz Waldorf