RSA Spinal Injury Design Workshops

RSA Spinal Injury Design Workshops

RSA Spinal Injury Design Workshops

Research Centre
Art and Design Research Centre


Teaching design to people with spinal cord injuries as a route to independence, resourcefulness and greater control over their lives

This Lab4Living project relates to Design and Rehabilitation, an RSA initiative which began in 2009, to teach design to people with spinal cord injuries (SCI) as a route to independence, resourcefulness and greater control over their lives.

The research team wanted to establish shared ownership of the project with the SCI participants. They would make explicit the fact that this was a joint enquiry; an opportunity for shared learning and to break the stereotypical view of the designer’s role as the ‘expert’ drafted in to solve functional problems identified by the users.

The aims and objectives in the project were

  • to challenge the perceptions of design among non-designers
  • to investigate how design can support self-efficacy
  • to understand the opportunities that the development of design skills might present to individuals living with long term disabilities
  • to further Lab4Living’s work and help define the role and value of co-design and participatory design
  • to encourage the transferability of skills and knowledge

The project aimed to recruit 8–12 participants to the workshops facilitated by a minimum of 3 staff (SHU academics in design and health) at each session. Six workshops were planned, comprising illustrated presentations from design researchers and interactive activities – both individual and group work – to give SCI-participants experience and insight into the role of design and its impact on everyday life. For continuity, two SHU staff with design knowledge and skills (including making, modelling and prototyping skills, graphics, audio and video editing skills, photography, drawing and illustration) engaged in all the sessions. 

Relevant experts were brought in for specific sessions. A member of the research team was tasked with ‘scribing’ the session in brief, identifying and recording significant comments and points. Between 3–4 post graduate students also supported each session to help the participants in their activities. Their roles would be strictly to facilitate as instructed by the participants, leaving all design decisions to the participants themselves.

Each session was recorded using video, and was closed with informal feedback from the participants asking them their opinions about the session (eg funniest, most surprising, comment of the day). Each session was also followed by a more formal debrief among the design research and clinical team. Because of the small numbers and irregular attendance of participants, and the relatively short time frame of the study, it was recognised that it would be difficult to establish meaningful quantitative data. An evaluation strategy was therefore proposed that focused on the qualitative assessment of participants’ understanding of design and its potential application to their lives, their confidence levels, and their experience of the opportunities and challenges presented by the workshops.

The full report produced by the RSA can be seen here. You can also download our 'Design and Rehabilitation' report here (PDF, 1283KB) (PDF, 1.3MB)

Researchers involved

Professor Paul Chamberlain - Co-Director C3RI, Head of Art and Design Research Centre, Director of Lab4Living and Director of Design Futures
Professor Ian Gwilt - Professor of Design: Visual Communication
Dr Claire Craig  - Co-Director, Lab4Living, Senior Lecturer Occupational Therapy

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