By Liz Jackson
Ms. Jackson is a disability design advocate.
It was 1988 when Betsey Farber found herself hacking through a dried-up nest of wild thyme in the backyard of a rental home in Provence. The scene was aromatic and picturesque, except for the pair of children’s scissors she’d stuffed her grown-up knuckles through. She couldn’t find anything better for the job. Who is going to leave their good kitchen tools in a rental? She had just finished disassembling an unbudging pepper grinder, soaking the rusted metal parts in a glass of Coca-Cola so she could season dinner.
Betsey and her husband, Sam, began to scour local hardware stores and weekend markets for better kitchen tools. But kitchen supply offerings were limited to slender, pointed, gripless products. What Betsey was hoping to find were more like the hand tools that New England Shakers had crafted a century before, with their beautifully and purposeful tactile handles. Sam, who had started a successful housewares business in 1960, began to plan a new line of kitchen tools with Betsey that would feel good, not just in her hand but in anyone’s hand. That was the genesis of the cooking tools and housewares company OXO, established in 1990.
Since then OXO has become a nearly universal example of universal design, a concept that strives to produce products and spaces accessible to everyone, disabled or not. It produces more that 1,000 products sold globally.
But in learning about Betsey and OXO, something caught my eye. This is from the OXO Blog: “Sam Farber founded OXO when he saw his wife, Betsey, having trouble holding her peeler due to arthritis. This got Sam thinking: Why do ordinary kitchen tools hurt your hands? Sam saw an opportunity to create more thoughtful cooking tools that would benefit all people (with or without arthritis) and promised Betsey he would make a better peeler.”
As a disabled designer, I have come to believe that products are a manifestation of relationships. Disabled people have long been integral to design processes, though we’re frequently viewed as “inspiration” rather than active participants. When I discovered Betsey was a talented architect in her own right, I began to wonder about her relationship to OXO. And so I reached out to ask.
When Betsey and I finally met, we quickly began doing exactly what my disabled friends and I do — we shared our life hacks, the creative ways we alter things to make them more accessible. I told her about the dancer and writer Jerron Herman who orders a pizza cutter with his waffle at the local diner, which works much better for him than a knife and fork, and Emily Ladau who uses kitchen tongs to extend her reach. Betsey told me about the time she wired the jar opener that was affixed to the bottom of her cabinet to a cheese grater so she could hold it in her hand. When Betsey and Sam sold OXO in 1996, the OXO Good Grips Jar Opener was their No. 2 product, second only to their peeler.
Our conversation left me wondering when a hack becomes more than a hack and turns into something of commercial value. And moreover, I wanted to know why these inventions aren’t routinely written into disability history.
Such stories reach back centuries and continue on to the present day, but they often go untold. For instance, you probably have not heard of Stephan Farffler, the Nuremberg-based watchmaker and paraplegic who in 1655 created what he called the manumotive carriage. Farffler accomplished two things with his invention; he created the first self-propelled wheelchair, and unbeknown to him, it became the precursor for the modern-day bicycle.
Today, the technologies we use often come from people like Wayne Westerman, who as an electrical engineering doctoral student at the University of Delaware in the late 1990s was experiencing symptoms of repetitive stress syndrome that interfered with his ability to study and work. With his adviser John Elias, he went on to help develop touch-screen technologies and establish a company called FingerWorks, which would pave the way for the tablet and cellphone revolution that shapes most of our lives today. If you are reading this piece on your phone right now, you may want to thank Westerman. Steve Jobs bought FingerWorks in 2005, and it led to the iPhone touch screen.
These stories exemplify what it means to be an original lifehacker; our unique experiences and insights enable us to use what’s available to make things accessible. Yet, despite this history of creating elegant solutions for ourselves, our contributions are often overshadowed or misrepresented, favoring instead a story with a savior as its protagonist.
This was the case with OXO. “The general understanding,” Betsey told me, “was of the brilliance and kindness of Sam who made these tools for his poor crippled wife so she could function in the kitchen. I will probably go down in history as having arthritis rather than having the conceptual idea of making these comfortable for your hand.”
This predominant narrative that disabled people are only recipients of design has managed to embed itself into our language. The phrase “design for disability” yields many more Google search results than “disability design.” OXO may think its handle fixes us, but I see the lack of attribution as the disabling issue.
When people like Betsey take credit for their contributions, it allows someone like me to take ownership of mine. This is how we attract disabled people to design.
Betsey now lives in what she calls an elder community. A group of designers recently asked her and a few of her neighbors to test a gripping tool prototype. As Betsey was trying it out, she thought of her OXO Jar Opener and told the designers, “You know, if you put the grip on one side instead of both, it will be lighter and more efficient.” They took her advice. I asked Betsey if they had any idea who she was. Laughing, she said no.
It is my hope that they know now, and that one day everyone will know what we do.
Liz Jackson is the founder of The Disabled List, a disability design self-advocacy organization, and WITH, a fellowship that helps match creative disabled people with design studios and other organizations.
Disability is a series of essays, art and opinion by and about people living with disabilities. The entire series can be found here. To reach the editors or submit an essay for consideration, write firstname.lastname@example.org and include “Disability” in the subject field.
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