Product design class innovates sports gear for disabled athletes

A product design class at the University of Oregon collaborated with Nike designers to innovate adaptive sports gear for disabled athletes.
Written by Beth Carter, Contributing Editor on

With the continuous advancement of athletic technology, better and better products are being developed to help people with various disabilities engage in their sport of choice. Still, the proper gear available is very limited.

Product Design students at the University of Oregon were given, thanks in part to the school's close relationship with Nike, Inc, the opportunity to work with nationally renowned adaptive sports athletes to innovate new products that met specific physical needs in a class called "Adaptive Products: Enabling Athletes with Disabilities." Nike has collaborated with adaptive product makers in the past to help amputee runners, but in this class the company helped students create the new athletic gear needed by competitive athletes who use prosthetic limbs as well as wheelchairs.

The 16 students were under the instruction of Wilson Smith, an Oregon grad and current Nike Design Director, and professor Bob Lucas, a former innovation designer at Nike, as well as the Dean of Oregon's Architecture and Allied Arts school Frances Bronet and Product Design Program Director Kiersten Muenchinger. The group was consistently "weaving together ethics and ingenuity," reported Sabina Samiee for the school.

The instructors focused on the idea of giving every body type the ability to move as much as the individual wanted, and that designers should embrace the challenges and limitations posed by the subjects in question. Bringing the athletes access to new designs to improve activity was at the heart of the project.

The goal behind the course was to enable every body to perform at its greatest potential while remaining safe, comfortable efficient and secure. What makes this class so special though, is that the students and the users of their products were their co-innovators, creating a partnership.

Each of the four athletes (Will Groulx, Paralympics Wheelchair Rugby Champion; Gabriella Rosales, ultra-marathon runner; Joel Rosinbum, ParaTriathlete; and Brandon Robins, Elite Adaptive Action Sports Athlete), worked with groups of students who focused for the duration of the class on their specific physical challenges. Over the course of the term, the students learned what was most important to their athlete, who would in turn help generate and give feedback to ideas as well as test out any creations.

The students recently showed their designs at a final review with reviewers from Nike, Ziba, PENSOLE Shoe Design Academy among others on hand to critique the products and help the students take the next steps to seeing their products realized. Groulx and Robbins were also present to give feedback on the concepts. Student Ariana Budner presented the "ALBATROSS" bicycle "Smart Seat," made for Groulx, designed to bring ventilation and enhanced comfort to the athlete's experience. Her classmate Ryan Fiorentino also presented his concept, the "CONCORD" upperbody support system (also made with Groulx in mind) that braces the athlete for the endurance test that is wheelchair rugby.

Other student designs included Ian Kenny's "MOMENT Arm, which aimed to provide Rosales with restorative armwear made for below-the-elbow amputees or athletes missing limbs from birth and Zoe Blatter's "XDRIVE" concept that gave Robins a compact package of tools that an athlete with a prosthetic lower leg would need. Tara Nielsen's design circumvented gear all together and turned to healthcare, coming up with accessible heat and massage tools.

One particularly interesting concept that came out of the class was student Jeff Heil's "AIRBound," that addressed training needs with a dynamic sports board training system for injured athletes. It looks a little like a snowboard (bindings and all) that has been inflated with air to enable balance and jumping so the wearer could test performance and physicality without worrying about getting injured further.

"Wilson Smith enthusiastically beamed, this is an all things bright and beautiful approach to design: anything is possible, and once you know your limits, you can potentially soar way beyond them…. with the right equipment, but more importantly, with the right attitude."

Humans are capable of pretty incredible things, and it's always comforting to see a group of people coming together to help each other be better at what they do, whether it's designing or competing. Most of the time it's not what happens to us in life that defines us, but what we do with it, and in this case both the athletes and designers a  got the chance to increase the availability and ingenuity of the products that are out there for disabled athletes.

For more photos, see the School of Architecture and Allied Arts' Facebook Page.

[University of Oregon School of Architecture and Allied Arts]
Images: School of Architecture and Allied Arts' Facebook page

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com


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