Beautiful designs are as important as function when it comes to countering generalisations and stigma around disability.

Cobie Moore glides the brush-tipped marker across the crisp white paper without a hint of friction. Dissecting beauty and death, and reflecting on life in a wheelchair, her brilliant colour palette and intricate illustrative storytelling are as delicate as they are robust.

This depth and richness permeates her design studies at the University of New South Wales (UNSW), where she will graduate with a Bachelor of Design and Bachelor of Art Education (Honours) in 2016.

Even before she graduates, Cobie’s illustrative talents have seen her take on commission-based illustrations and sell her artwork, including prints and cards, on Etsy (www.cobieannmoore.etsy.com). Her flair for jewellery making is also undeniable. In fact, she specialised in designing jewellery before her accident.

On Christmas Day 2011, just before Cobie was about to start her fourth year at university, she was preparing to have her photograph taken on the balcony of her family home in Coffs Harbour when the railing gave way. She fell on to rocks crushing her C5-C6 vertebrae and was paralysed from the chest down with limited movement in her hands and low strength in her arms.

Cobie was in the Royal North Shore Hospital (RNSH) and then Royal Rehab for one year.

She has fond memories of her RNSH occupational therapist (OT), who discovered her passion for art and helped her reclaim her drawing and painting abilities. However, her ‘fondness’ for OTs isn’t universal.

Regaining some of her function has meant using OT-developed assistive devices. Donning hand splints, to maintain range of movement and for drawing and painting, and palmar bands to hold cutlery and eat independently, seemed like a good idea when she was in hospital and rehabilitation. But when outside the confines of these medical settings, the distinctive medical aesthetic of the assistive devices made her feel self-conscious and unwanted in the non-medical environment.

Although she was pleased to reclaim her drawing and painting abilities, the assistive devices crafted by the OTs were more about function than form—and a far cry from aesthetically pleasing.

Cobie says the pink thermoplastic moulded splints that enabled her to grasp coloured pencils were “very inconvenient”, “ugly” and “looked freaky”. They made her stand out—in a negative way—as people would stare and make comments.

She also recounted the awkward glances and pitying looks from friends and other diners, when she used the palmar band with a fork at a restaurant for the first time. It made her vow never to use assistive cutlery in public again.

These experiences had a profound effect on Cobie. Returning to university with the help of ParaQuad and Northcott scholarships and the InVoc program, she moved away from jewellery making as her specialty. Instead, her honours thesis, which she completed in 2015, focused on aesthetics, design and disability in response to what she saw as a significant need for well-designed and aesthetically pleasing assistive devices.

She says it’s essential to move away from the distinctive medical aesthetic and design for people rather than patients, placing value on the aesthetic sensibilities of the final product.

Cobie makes it clear that this is not just about making pretty objects. She points out that assistive devices are very personal objects, so getting the aesthetics right means understanding each user’s identity and environment.

She highlights research which notes that just because people may share the same disability it doesn’t mean they have the same needs. She says each user’s desires and social, occupational and other environmental needs must be considered—so assistive devices become individualised. However this can be difficult to achieve, because when it comes to working out the best way to enhance function, the current focus tends to be on adapting the person with disability to the environment rather than adapting the environment to the person, she says.

There also needs to be a greater awareness on the part of health professionals that people with disability don’t need adaptive devices that scream, “look at me I have disability”. She says more time should be spent investigating devices that are produced for everybody to use that may also work well in the context of a person with a disability.

Cobie points to the humble felt-tipped pen as an example. In her situation, it turned out that she didn’t need an adaptive device to draw again after all. Already on the mass market was a felt-tipped pen that didn’t require as much force as a pencil. Therefore, she was able to use a device, without adaptation, that was designed for artists without disability.

Interestingly, this discovery didn’t come from a health professional—but a designer. Cobie says designers bring a whole new perspective on materiality and aesthetics and should be part of any team that is supporting a person with disability.

The felt-tipped pen is a metaphor for how universal access principles can be applied to all aspects of daily living, not only gaining access to buildings, etc. Cobie wants devices to be created that can be used by everybody, not one device for someone with disability and another device for someone without disability. Also, when it comes to designing assistive devices, she wants them designed as close as possible to mainstream devices. The aesthetics must also keep up with the fashions and styles of mainstream design, she adds.

In response to what she describes as shockingly designed gloves for use when pushing wheelchairs, she has created a new design prototype. Styled more like a fashion accessory, material moulds to the palm side of her hand, a ring attaches to the material and slips on to her thumb, from the ring a chain runs along the back of her hand and connects to a bracelet around her wrist, which attaches to the material on her palm. While a few design kinks need to be ironed out to improve the glove’s functionality, she says it’s a much more pleasing device to the eye. She feels more confident using this type of accessory than the conventional glove.

Interestingly, she says that in the midst of creating this new glove design, she noticed that someone else had designed a similar glove—but not for pushing wheelchairs. The other glove was designed for people to hold cold railings in Northern Hemisphere winters.

Focusing on aesthetics and universality, as well as function, enables people with disability to assert their individuality as people, rather than as people who need to wear assistive devices that point to their disability. This helps to stop people with disability from being viewed as homogeneous, therefore avoiding generalisations and subsequent misconceptions about them and their disability, which in turn can help reduce stigma, Cobie says.

Her aim is for designers and artisans to collaborate with people with disabilities and OTs to create beautiful assistive devices minus the dominant medical aesthetic. Collaboration is the key, as the last thing she wants is for people with disability to be passive in this relationship and to feel like they are someone else’s inspiration or problem to be solved.

Her long-term career goal is to have her own design business, collaborating on these types of designs. Meanwhile, her illustrations and other artwork continue to make their mark. Her portfolio of cards and prints, including “Davy Jones Locker”, “Crocodile in the Lounge Room”, “Two faced”, “Ghosts of Christmas Past”, “Wild man” and many others, continues to grow.

Cobie’s artistic talent will be on display at the SCIA Independence Expo in April, where you’ll have the opportunity to pick up a Cobie Moore original card or print. Visit www.scia.org.au/expo or call 1800 819 775 to register. Entry to the Expo is FREE.

This story was written by Helen Borger and first published in the summer 2016 edition of Accord, a Spinal Cord Injuries Australia magazine.

Leave a Reply