Can you solve our problem?

31 Jan

As I’ve mentioned before, Douglas, being relatively well-known in the press, attracted all sorts of attention, both good and bad. One of the stories that haunts me the most is about a young man with multiple sclerosis and his father who came to visit Douglas a couple of times back in 1997. They had a problem that they were hoping Douglas could help them to solve. The young man was in his twenties, and was doing his best to live a full and active life despite his condition. He used crutches, not being confined to a wheelchair, and loved to play football. However, the crutches he was using were not up to the job. Here’s your classic crutch:

drevena-podpazni-berle-bpd-96-ab

This is a nice-looking version of the traditional crutch, which first took its present form during World War I; a time when the world suddenly had need of a lot of crutches. The design hasn’t changed much since. There is one other iteration, which looks like this:

elbow_crutches_with_comfy_handles_large

Our visitor used the first kind of crutch, because they are more robust than the second, but they weren’t really up to the job. They caused massive bruising under his arms from him using them to run around on the field, and they kept breaking under the impact of the game, including hitting the football, so they had to keep replacing them. There is limited padding, limited options to adjust them, and very little flex or strength in their design. He and his father hoped that Douglas could design a crutch that could cope with his lifestyle, because he was going to have to use them for the rest of his life. Douglas came up with some initial ideas:

one-arm-crutch-draft

crutch-with-interchangeable-handle

You can see that he was thinking about shock absorbing, about padding or more comfortable handles, about angles and how the body moves. He also had a go at the traditional underarm crutch:

 

crutch

 

His crutch was made of fibreglass rather than wood or metal, wasn’t just a straight line, and also included length adjusters so that you could match the crutch to your height. I personally also really like the cheery colours.

What breaks my heart about this story is that it ends here. Why? It ends here because the father and son, ordinary people, could not pay for further development needed beyond these initial sketches. Like all creative industries, there is a difficult path to walk between doing something because it’s fun, or important, and giving away your skills and knowledge for free. To develop this idea would have taken months of work, including buying materials, making tools, testing, re-designing, testing again and more, before being able to make one that worked. After that, what do you do? As the inventor, is it worth investing all that time and money and energy into something when you only have a guaranteed market of one person with a small budget? Do you take a chance in case you can persuade others to buy it afterwards? You’d have to invest in marketing, time in sales calls and meetings, time answering the question ‘why is this better than what we have already?’. Douglas had to walk away from this.

However, going through Douglas’s sketchbooks, I found this drawing from years later:

living-crutch

Clearly, the idea had stayed with Douglas and he had continued to think about it long after the clients had disappeared. What’s particularly interesting to me is the date. Douglas was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease in 2002, and by 2010 he was still relatively fit and well, but had been coping with a life-altering disease for several years, as well as having a small car accident that fractured a vertebrae and put him into hospital briefly. He recovered from the accident pretty well, but bodies and aids and designs that helped rather than hindered people began to crop up more in his working life as he, consciously or not, began to look at the world from the point of view of someone with vulnerabilities. I’d really love to see this crutch made and tested, because I think it could genuinely improve the lives of many people who rely on them in both the short and long term. Such a shame that, once again, something as unforgiving and all-encompassing as money should get in the way of a more perfect world.

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