What Is Adaptive Design?

Tara Barnett

Adaptive design is the creation of objects that foster ease of access for all people. Typically, this term is associated with disabilities, but all people could theoretically benefit from modifications to certain objects to make them better fit an individual's body or mind. Most people believe that creating objects and systems that are universally accessible is preferable to individually modifying objects to increase accessibility, but that current and practical solutions to lived problems are also extremely important. The types of modifications characteristic of adaptive design are usually individual in nature, but can help with mobility, positioning, and even learning.

Adaptive design focuses on ease of access for all people.
Adaptive design focuses on ease of access for all people.

Most objects and systems in the world are designed for a nonexistent "normal" body. Adaptive design is a philosophy that advocates making changes to these objects in order to increase ease of use for an individual. The individual in question might have a very specific disability, such as being unable to sit upright, in which case the object might be used in a number of situations in which sitting is a problem. Alternatively, the design might be intended to supplement a specific existing object, such as a wheelchair.

Restrooms can be modified so they are accessible to people who rely on wheelchairs.
Restrooms can be modified so they are accessible to people who rely on wheelchairs.

One of the most interesting features of adaptive design is that it is, in its ideal form, highly individual. Even people with the same disability might have highly different needs depending on the specifics of that disability. For this reason, emphasis is placed on the customization of adaptive products. It is not always possible to achieve a perfect fit between the body and technology, but a close match is important for success with these products.

All people can benefit from adaptive design modifications, but people who are disabled can benefit immensely from these minor changes. Facilitating participation in social activities and increasing access to opportunities is one of the major goals of many groups that focus on this type of design. Even so, it is generally considered more appropriate both philosophically and practically to maximize ease of use for all people without adding on modifications. Considering difference when designing products can decrease the need for adaptation of those products, which in turn promotes seamless inclusion of people who are disabled.

It is often possible to improve accessibility using basic tools and design materials. Individuals may be able to build adaptive solutions using inexpensive materials like cardboard or foam. These products are not always the most attractive, but they can be highly functional. Many groups aim to assist parents in creating these items for children and for providing individuals with the technologies they need in order to participate fully in their lives.

An office that utilizes adaptive design allows wheelchair users to more easily collaborate with their co-workers.
An office that utilizes adaptive design allows wheelchair users to more easily collaborate with their co-workers.

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