How User-Centered Design is Giving Disabled Athletes New Options

Sixty years ago, if you were disabled, sports were pretty much out of the question.

We’ve come a long way since then.

Adaptive sports, sometimes called disabled sports, began as a means to rehabilitate veterans from World War II, Korea, and the Vietnam War. In response to the needs of injured service members as well as civilians, sport was introduced as a key part of rehabilitation. This grew into a recreational and competitive pastime. Today, disabled athletes compete in nearly every sport imaginable – often with the use of adaptive equipment or prosthesis.

Sport for persons with physical disabilities began to be organized in the United States in the late 1960s through Disabled Sports USA. This organization now serves more than 60,000 wounded warriors, youth and adults annually. As a part of Disabled Sports USA, double amputee and certified snowboard instructor Reggie Showers has spent time with veterans and taught them to snowboard at The Hartford’s Ski Spectacular in Breckenridge, CO.

Showers joined a group of STEM teachers recently at Boston-based software company PTC as part of a challenge focused on user-centered design.

User-centered design zeros in on improving the user experience by gaining a deep understanding of the people who use the product, incorporating user feedback that informs each phase of the design project.

This particular group of teachers were tasked with designing a smart, connected prosthesis the Showers and other disabled athletes might use for alpine sports.

Reggie Showers demonstrates his prosthesis

As a world champion motorcycle drag racer, rock climber, pilot, and snowboard instructor, Showers is certainly unique. But, he is also uniquely suited to give input and feedback to designers of adaptive sports equipment.

For their project, the teachers explored five areas related to user-centered design: emotional connection, integrated experiences, ergonomic sensitivity, intuitive usability, and stunning aesthetics.

“Snowboarding is challenging because it relies on heel turns and toe turns,” Showers explains. “We’re fine with the heel turns, but with prosthetic feet you have very limited flexibility in the toe area, so the toe turns are really difficult. While boarding, I’d like to have more of a shock absorber in the pylon section of the leg to provide some spring.”

Showers, who snowboards in shorts to show off his prosthesis, says aesthetics are also highly important to him.

“My prostheses make me feel whole – they make me feel normal,” Showers says.

But this was not always the case.

“The legs I had when I was a teen were ugly and negatively affected my body image.”

When a product is so fundamental to a person’s life and well-being, a personal connection develops between man and machine. Smart product designers tap into that connection to ensure that the design is not only functional, but something the user will embrace.

“I’ve lived as an amputee for over 30 years,” Showers says. “So I know how to articulate when something’s not right with my prostheses. But, this can be difficult for new amputees and especially for children. They can’t accurately express what hurts and where.”

A proper fit is essential for an integrated experience. “My prostheses are so well made and well fitted that most people can’t tell I’m an amputee if I’m wearing long pants,” Showers says. “My gait is very natural. But, if the fit is off, you’ll have pain.”

That’s why ergonomics are so important.

“Working closely with your prosthetist – the person who makes or fits prostheses – is crucial,” explains Showers. One of the issues with amputees is that the volume in their residual limbs changes due to fluids in the body accumulating in the limbs while a person sleeps. With volume changes in the leg once the person is up and moving around, the residual leg can move up and down in the socket causing abrasions or blisters.

“An ill-fitting socket can be painful, but is something that can be fixed with minor adjustments,” Showers says. “There are many small adjustments that can be made to help the fit be more comfortable or to adjust the gait.”

“I bet I can get ready more quickly in the morning than you can,” Reggie quips to the teachers. He just needs to click on his leg and his shoes are already on his feet. The intuitive click-and-lock design gives him confidence.

User-centric design is all about listening to users and designing something functional, dependable, and attractive, Showers concludes.

“I’m very proud of my metal.”

And the smart, connected prosthesis? From pressure sensors that send alerts before painful blisters form to flexible toe joints to a heating element for the legs, the teacher group had a slew of great ideas.

Learn more about PTC’s STEM Certificate Program Capstone Challenge.


Feature photo by Doug Pensinger/Getty Images. Insert by Matt Butler.


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