Mobility Aid Invention by Gilson and DePoy in Smithsonian Exhibit
The AFARI Mobility Device, co-invented by University of Maine and CCIDS professors Stephen Gilson and Elizabeth DePoy, is part of the current Access+Ability exhibition at the Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum in New York City. The exhibition, which runs through September 3, 2018, features over 70 innovative designs and “explores how users and designers are expanding and adapting accessible products and solutions in ways previously unimaginable.”
AFARI is a three-wheeled, aesthetically designed adaptive device to support walking and outdoor fitness. The idea was germinated when Gilson and DePoy were training for a half marathon. Despite reaching their mileage and time goals on treadmills, DePoy could not compete without weight-bearing and balance support equipment. After an extensive national and international search for a device that would fit her needs, the couple was unsuccessful in finding one that was both functional and non-stigmatizing in its appearance. From failure arose opportunity and they embarked on a new research and development agenda as inventors of innovative mobility devices.
With support from the Maine Technology Institute, the University of Maine, the Center for Community Inclusion and Disability Studies, and National Institutes of Health, Gilson and DePoy collaborated with UMaine’s Department of Mechanical Engineering throughout the rigorous design, fabrication, testing, and revision that ultimately resulted in the AFARI model now on display in the Smithsonian exhibition. They note the particular importance of co-design in the success of AFARI: “We used forensic analysis and usability testing procedures with a range of potential users to identify the failures of AFARI.” Based on “what was wrong,” they made repeated major and minor revisions to both its appearance and function.
“We were the initial inventors of AFARI,” said Gilson and DePoy, “but without engineering collaborators, co-designers, colleagues, students, and commercial partners, it would not have come to fruition. AFARI’s design distinguishes it as beautiful and it now joins a nascent, but emerging repository of social change art that the Smithsonian Design Museum marks as an historical turning in disability access.”
AFARI is outfitted with highly functional features to support outdoor movement on diverse terrain. Its structure positions users in an upright posture, supporting their natural stride and gait. Cara McCarty, curator for the Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum, observed, “AFARI users look like they are taking their bikes for a walk.” AFARI uses three quick release off-the-shelf bike wheels, easily changed in response to the environment. Consistent with the design and function of fitness equipment for any user, AFARI is customizable in both form and function. Users can connect their preferred electronic activity and health tracker that uses Bluetooth® to the onboard balance and gait sensor, developed just for AFARI. Colors, drink holders, and even a seat can be ordered as desired.
As professors of interdisciplinary disability studies and social work, Gilson and DePoy say AFARI has brought new life to and application of their scholarship and teaching. They note how the following principles, generated through rigorous research, were applied and now are inscribed in AFARI:
- Similar to mainstream mobility products, users have preferences for both form and function of adaptive devices;
- Natural posture is not only healthy, but has major benefits for social interaction and esteem;
- Adaptive equipment needs to break free of the limitations of durable medical equipment in order to foster function and prolonged use; and
- Design and function are equal partners.