The Other 90%

Design for the Other 90% is a website which highlights design initiatives which are intended to be accessible to the “5.8 billion people, or 90% [of the world’s population], [who] have little or no access to most of the products and services many of us take for granted; in fact, nearly half do not have regular access to food, clean water, or shelter.”

The very fact that you’re looking at this website right now means that you are among the lucky 10%.

What does this have to do with disabilities?

Many of the technologies we use, including “basic” assistive devices which we take for granted, are inaccessible to most of the world’s population. A simple cane is out of reach. Prosthetic limbs, wheelchairs, communication books, the countless items we talk about here (and which many of us use every day) are not accessible to people with disabilities in most of the world. Our access (however limited it may feel at times, especially when we are fighting with people who want to deny us) to these things is predicated entirely by where and when we were born.

There are a lot of charities which do things like providing prostheses to people who have lost limbs to mines, warfare, car accidents, and other events. There are a fair number of charities which work to provide people with disabilities around the world with other assistive devices.

This is all well and good, and a positive step.

But what I like about Design for the Other 90% is that it’s actually focused on working with people in the regions they are trying to help. Rather than importing technology and ideas from somewhere else and trying to shoehorn them into place, the designers profiled are actually thinking about needs on the ground, and interacting with the populations they’re helping. It’s a cooperative effort to get more things within reach, and it’s an effort which focuses not necessarily on passive charity, but on active interaction and the mutual development of effective, useful technology that will actually work in the places where it’s being applied.

I think that charity itself can be extremely problematic, which is something I’ll discuss at another time, and I’m much more interested in supporting programs which focus on autonomy and the promotion of cooperation and eventual independence. That’s what excites me about Design for the Other 90%; it’s far from being the only resource that collects information like this, of course, it’s just what I happened to stumble upon first.

One of the neat things about the site is that it profiles a lot of programs, initiatives, and designs, including programs which are focusing on people with disabilities. I think it’s a good starting resource for people who are looking for a way to do something for the other 90%, but aren’t sure about where to start. I like that they specifically talk about different levels at which people can do something, whether that’s working on programs in the classroom or traveling to regions where people are in need to share skills with them. There’s a recognition there that people can participate on a lot of levels at their own levels of ability, and that feels rare to me when it comes to initiatives like this, as often they demand money or time and leave no other options for contributing.

Readers, can you think of initiatives/programs which fit in with the cooperative ethos which you’d like to promote? What do you think about the ideas behind Design for the Other 90%?

About s.e. smith

s.e. smith is a recalcitrant, grumpy person with disabilities who enjoys riling people up, talking about language, tearing apart poor science reporting, and chasing cats around the house with squeaky mice in hand. Ou personal website can be found at this ain't livin'.

11 thoughts on “The Other 90%

  1. One that immediately occurs to me is Afrigadget, which focuses on the very imaginative and often entrepreneurial iniatives that originate in Africa. Fun and wonky. They have a website:

    and twitter feed:

    Also H Design is worth a look:

    They say about their mission:

    We are a team of designers, architects, and builders engaging locally through partnerships with social service organizations, communities, and schools to improve the quality of life for the socially overlooked. Our five-tenet design process (There is no design without action; We design WITH, not FOR; We document, share and measure; We start locally and scale globally, We design systems, not stuff) results in simple and effective design solutions for those without access to creative capital.

  2. There was (probably still is) this organisation here that used to have tv advertisements, that said they specifically work with people/teams from the countries they want to help, instead of trying to force our ideas and methods into other cultures. Only I forgot their name.
    They did a lot of different stuff, but I think I remember one specific thing, about trying to limit the spread of AIDS and other sexually transmittable diseases.
    They were still just asking for money though.

  3. Looking at a website does not mean someone is part of the lucky 10%. There is free Internet access available in many places that can be used by poor and homeless people.

  4. It’s a good point, Amanda, except that the poor and homeless in places like the United States still have access to much, much more than many residents of many other nations. This is not to say that poverty and homelessness are not a problem among the 10%! Or that these populations don’t need access to many of the things discussed here. But: Literacy and Internet access put people in a position of privilege, even when they are, subjectively, among the least privileged members of the society they live in. It’s worth nothing that, for starters, only 25% of the world’s population has Internet access.

  5. The homeless folks in my community may have access to the internet, and some folks will wait in the long line to use the free internet at the library, but many homeless folks don’t have the computer skills to get online. It can also be harder to use the library without an address.

    Design for the Other 90% sounds pretty cool because it doesn’t sound like the top-down, let-me-help-you-poor-people approach of “charity.” Charity tends to put a bandaid on the suffering caused by the gross disproportion of wealth and resources in the world.

  6. You can’t use the computers at our library without a library card, and you can’t get a library card without an address. (Though PO Boxes are accepted.)

    Anyways, any charity that isn’t “top-down” as Lake Desire says, is great.

    Money and access mean so much – I can think of two mainstream Indian movies (one from 2000 or so and one from last night) I’ve seen where somebody who is paralyzed is just stuck in bed. Yeah, movies aren’t life, but still.

  7. I have to backup Kaitlyn here — recently, when I went to get a library card, despite being housebound for the last few years and having moved recently (therefore having no documentation), I was told that I had to provide an address and proof of address, and if I couldn’t give a phone number, I had to give an email address. I’m not sure they accept PO Boxes, either; they were very much ‘where do you LIVE’, rather than ‘where you get your mail’, and when I told them I was housebound, they informed me about their volunteer program where people bring books to the housebound on their behalf. and I told them I didn’t want that; I wanted to be able to use the library.

    Eventually they allowed me a card on condition of a) providing my email address, my current street address, and b) that I would bring in something with proof of address as soon as I could, /preferably/ before I borrowed anything again.

    I’m still not sure what to do about that, but yes, I think Kaitlyn’s point stands: these things are more complicated than you’d think.

  8. Also, to stop derailing:

    I think the ideas behind the Other 90% are excellent, and I’d love to see more from them. But I’d also like to see more intersectional work from what I’ve read — not merely a matter of internet access, but fixing the mistakes of early internet access (inaccesibility, tied to monies and class) and technology and so on. The mistakes do not have to be reproduced, and I’d like to see more awareness of that.

    Bloody good idea, though.

  9. Yes, can we stop derailing, please? I’m quite bothered because this ought to be a thread about global poverty, and it has gone to a Western-(particularly USian-)centric place. Let’s talk about the other 90% of people.

  10. Some of these are conversations to be had, but sometimes there are places that some conversations shouldn’t be had.

    … also, honestly, “I saw something in a movie about a country I do not live in, therefore it must be representative of how people actually live in that country” makes me fairly uncomfortable, and I did not want to let it pass unremarked.

  11. The Whirlwind Network of wheelchair builders was born in 1980 when Ralf Hotchkiss met a group of 4 disabled men who shared one wheelchair in a hospital in Managua, Nicaragua. They hatched the idea of setting up a shop in Managua that would build wheelchairs made from locally available parts, be locally repairable, and which would require little initial capital to get started. Power in the hands of the people who need it the most.

    The Whirlwind Roughrider is cheap to build from widely available stock materials — bicycle tires, wheelbearings from old nails, bamboo structural elements where that’s available. Unlike the second-hand chrome wheelchairs donated by well-meaning first world countries, Whirlwind Chairs are designed for dusty dirt roads and easy maintenance. The Network supports cross-fertilization of new ideas and designs generated around the world. The active involvement of wheelchair riders in design and production has been integral to the Network’s success.

    Women Pushing Forward began as a WWI project to support technical training for women; it’s now split off on its own.

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