IDSA and the Society's Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Council present the second installment in our Disability in Design interview series, below, with disabled designer Kam Redlawsk (she/her/hers).
Kam Redlawsk is a disabled industrial designer, artist, advocate, traveler, writer, and speaker. She’s also a Korean American adoptee. She has been an advocate for the rare disease and disability community for 14 years: using art, writing, travels, and tools that connect us as humans.
She has lived with a very rare, muscle-wasting condition called GNE Myopathy for over 20 years. Typically, you’ll find her on road trips, in nature, scavenging for art destinations, or concocting exploration plans. She’s a daydreamer, a chaser of inspiration, and believes stories create bridges within humanity.
Follow Kam on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook (@KamRedlawsk); learn more about her at www.kamredlawsk.com; and check out her work on Remotion aesthetics, featured in the exhibit "Design with the 90%" curated by Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum.
Photo caption: Kam Redlawsk in her wheelchair. She wears a colorful dress and sandals. Photo courtesy of Kam Redlawsk.
IDSA: Tell us about your education background.
Kam Redlawsk: BFA from College for Creative Studies, Detroit (majoring in Automotive and Product Design) and Liberal Arts from Macomb Community College.
How did you become interested in design, particularly physical product design or industrial design?
I accidentally fell into Industrial Design. I had never heard of this career prior. In 2000, I received a full ride scholarship from Wayne State University and a partial scholarship to Lawrence Tech University for architecture. I had decided to become an architect, but also had several career interests. One day I heard of College for Creative Studies and was told it was very difficult to get in at the time, so I casually dropped my portfolio off and accepted on the spot. As I surveyed majors like photography, I ended up choosing a major that I could theoretically do when I become more disabled. At the time I was aware my body was deteriorating but still had no accurate diagnosis for what was happening. I heard of CCS’s industrial design program and thought it was interesting—suddenly realizing every product we interact with was designed by someone.
How has disability impacted your life?
Disability has completely turned my life upside down, offering clearer vision most non disabled don’t have or think of, because they don’t have to. In my late teens, as a varsity soccer player, I began having physical changes. Doctors and others around me didn’t believe me; so, after a couple years of progression, I became my own best advocate and began a long diagnosis journey. Eventually, I found out I had an extremely rare and genetic muscle wasting condition called GNE Myopathy (rare form of muscular dystrophy) that would eventually lead me to complete immobility. I’ve lived with this progressive condition for over 23 years, and for 15 years, I have been a disability and rare disease advocate alongside my industrial designer career.
Disability had given my already innate sense of justice, humanity, and empathy, a sound ground to speak up and share such a unique spectrum of the human condition. It also brought about art and writing. Out of necessity, to share this life altering experience, I became a self taught illustrator, writer, and speaker who has shared their very personal story on a global scale, and throught it, have seen more deeply into the eyes of those who are different, stigmatized, and forgotten. Disability has allowed me to see the complexity of humanity more deeply and clearly then when I was able bodied.
"Experiencing a progressive disability while majoring in industrial design forced these two worlds to collide in such a clear way."
How has disability inspired and affected your pursuit of design?
I’ve experienced multiple stages of disability, as well as knowing what it’s like to not be disabled. Experiencing a progressive disability while majoring in industrial design forced these two worlds to collide in such a clear way. ID is everything around us and everything we design involves the interaction of humans. What I realized about design is how segregated it is, and how it has limited its potential through this by designing on a very thin spectrum. What I’ve come to understand is the more we include or broaden the parameters of any design problem, the greater possibility for true innovation, including redefining how humans interact with their creations.
Photo caption: Kam Redlawsk, who has shoulder-length pink hair and glasses, looks into the distance. Photo courtesy of Kam Redlawsk.
Photo caption: Kam Redlawsk in her wheelchair. She wears a black and white patterned scarf and blanket. Photo courtesy of Kam Redlawsk.
What challenges have you faced through school and in your career? What resolutions have you found helpful in school and work environments, and what still needs to change?
As I was going through physical struggles and bouncing from hospital to hospital in my quest for answers to my progressive health, I found it difficult to keep up with an extremely intense Automotive industrial design program that requested I sacrifice my health to become a designer. As a human with high standards of herself, this often created shame, embarrassment, and stress—of being a design student who has to pretend their health and disability away, while also limiting my own personal progress as a designer, because I was too busy being hard on myself, which limited and stunted my ability to become better, I feel. But I graduated, despite many doctors telling me I should quit college and accept a less ambitious life.
As an industrial designer working in the real world, I quickly realized I had to hide my cane and disability in interviews in order to get jobs. But as I progressed into a wheelchair, my disability was more difficult to hide, and I found so many companies, who had loved my work and did multiple interviews with me, would quickly tell me they weren’t interested once we met in person. Some of these interviews I couldn’t even get into their building, so imagine my mortification as a professional to have to ask a potential hiring director to help me in, something that made me look even more disabled.
I eventually went into freelance because I figured companies couldn’t see my disability this way. I’ve since used these experiences to give more focus to disability and its societal discriminations, stigmas, and misconceptions; because if no one talks about it, then it hides in the dark. This also limits human potential. How sad, as a student and professional, that I had to feel less than and worthless when I have a body of empathetic knowledge, sight to see the holes and problems with design, and a unique perspective that could only add to design, not hinder it.
What are some of your favorite examples of successes and failures in universal design?
I think technology is the future for disabled. And as tech progresses, we’re seeing more and more products and environments realized for not just the humanity and ethics of universal design, but for its potential.
Technology, like speech to text, is now available in more and more devices, including speech command products like Echo—creating an entire smart tech design division. Oddly, the idea of hands free and its endless design possibilities was not created for disability, but for able bodied people who can physically achieve any interaction they desire, making these products more of an extra or luxury item to assist in, essentially, laziness. This happens often, which asks why one demographic is more important than another, and things are suddenly “possible” for one crowd when it was “impossible” for us all this time?
Things like self-driving cars, hands-free interactive home and innovative interface systems in development, or neuro tech that redefines disabled’s ability to move, communicate, and interact are all wonderful, but only initially aroused because it was a project for able bodied. These types of universal innovations could have been possible earlier if design had included disabled and its perceived limitations to the proverbial design board.
The Microsoft Xbox adaptive game controller is a good example of how involving mobility disability parameters into the design produced an innovative and new way to interact and use a remote controller. Products and design could be created like this all the time, if we broaden the terms and vision. And it’s not like universal design isn’t profitable, as we're now seeing. I think oftentimes companies don’t want to deal with a perspective if they don’t think it will be profitable, which is an ethics thing that should be pondered. But it’s proven that universal design has a profitable spot in the industry because these designs are still available for all; they just invite one of the most marginalized groups in humanity to come along, a group that makes up to 25% or more of the global market. We’re a group with tremendous purchasing power, so start designing with us.
What are your tips for designers with disabilities?
My advice to other disabled designers (and in general to disabled) is to always be yourself and keep pushing, because change doesn’t happen when we’re still. The times may not be up to date, but it’s up to us to push against those who fear change or those following ignorant and limiting narratives.