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Saturday, June 10 • 3:30pm - 5:00pm
Shoe Utopias: Co-Designing Accessible Footwear

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Footwear is a vital component in everyday dress, and in many contexts, wearing shoes is often a sociocultural necessity. What you wear on your feet can be physically liberating and visually leveraged as a tool for self-expression. However, footwear can also marginalize those who do not fit into hegemonic ideas of the ‘perfect body’. For many people with disabilities, finding appropriate, comfortable, and stylish footwear is a significant challenge. Systemic issues such as exclusive sizing charts and uncomfortable fit are primary barriers for people who use assistive devices such as ankle-foot orthotics or those with non-standard foot shapes or gait patterns. There are also a variety of design details that should be addressed to create more inclusive products. For example, for people with limited dexterity or physical mobility, such as those living with cerebral palsy or arthritis, fastening choice, access points, and material use are crucial elements to consider for ease when donning/doffing shoes. This workshop is an extension of Open Style Lab’s previous work with the disability community to identify challenges in style accessibility. We aim to propose solutions to make shoes more inclusive using participatory design methods.

The lack of physically and economically accessible footwear options on the market directly affects the disability community, not only because their biological needs are not being met, but because they are not being viewed as valuable consumers, whose personal taste is as important as anybody else’s. The damaging legacy of medical clothing, including orthopedic footwear, is that the functionality of a product has often been prioritized over its aesthetic value. Healthcare-oriented shoes are typically not coveted as desirable fashion accessories and can visually stigmatize their wearers. Although there has been growing consciousness of these issues over the last few years, with mainstream innovations being released, there is still much improvement needed to address systemic ableism in the fashion industry at large.

This 90-minute workshop will use material artifacts and participatory co-creation methods to imagine the future of inclusive shoe design. To begin the discussion, we will hear from people with disabilities who have unique insights about their relationship with shoes. Starting with a selection of used footwear, we will contemplate their previous owners, and speculate on who made them? Where have they been? What were they used for and worn with? We will also provide pre-fabricated lasts of different disabled feet. Lasts are vital tools used to create shoes, but typically, they have been shaped to reflect the standardized foot. We will ask participants to consider the significance of not only designing accessible footwear, but also the tools that enable them to be made. Using the prefabricated lasts as a base structure, groups of participants will materially explore solutions directly onto the shoes: ripping and tearing, sticking, and stitching new design opportunities.

Emphasis will be placed on celebrating the unique forms and variances all of our bodies have. This playful activity will respond to earlier discussions about the liberating potential of footwear. Operating outside of the contemporary adaptive shoe market limits, we attempt to avoid the ‘compulsory able-bodiedness and able-mindedness’ (McRuer, 2014) that fixes design thinking into narrow capitalist structures. We will work with abstract speculations, seeing footwear as an extension of the body and referencing artists such as Kristina Walsh and Dani Clode whose work stretches the boundaries of body, prosthetics, and augmentation. We will offer a variety of engagement opportunities without strict deliverables to suit a range of accessibility needs, ensuring that inclusivity is at the core of this event. Some of the accessible hacking tools available will include 3D printed easy-hold needle threaders and unpickers, body-inclusive sketching templates, and stick-on fabric loops.

The intent of this session is to establish an experimental, respectful, and engaging setting for collaboration between disabled and non-disabled participants. In order to navigate an inaccessible world, people with disabilities often tinker with, hack, alter, and personalize the built environment (Hamraie & Fritsch, 2019). Building on equity-based design principles, this research argues that people with disabilities are vital stakeholders throughout the decision process, and uses the designed ‘by and with’ and not ‘for’ methodology, popularized by influential figures such as Tim Brown and Sinéad Burke. We are looking to utilize the lived experience and expertise of those within the Open Style Lab community and co-design with conference attendees to gain insights about the wants, needs, frustration, and joy we all get from wearing shoes. Disability is the largest minority group in the world, and it is the only marginalized group that we all have the potential of joining. Disability intersects with every other identity, and innovation in this field will benefit us all.

This workshop aims to examine the design process as well as the end product to question who has been systematically excluded and what effect it has on their daily lives. We value a multi-disciplinary audience for a variety of perspectives, as the session will be run by disabled and non-disabled designers, academics, and healthcare professionals. Overall, this research is an excellent opportunity to further test Open Style Lab’s co-design methodology, using footwear as a case study to think through and with materials.

avatar for Ellen Fowles

Ellen Fowles

Fashion Professor, Savannah College of Art & Design
avatar for Yasmin Keats

Yasmin Keats

Executive Director of Open Style Lab, Open Style Lab, United Kingdom

KellyAnne McGuire

Open Style Lab

Saturday June 10, 2023 3:30pm - 5:00pm EDT
PS 309 (Design Center)