There’s a short story I like by Raymond Carver called “Cathedral.” Set in one of Carver’s deceptively ordinary American households, the narrator recounts his experience meeting a blind man. At first, the narrator pities the blind man, but, throughout the story, the narrator sees a more complete way of living, and comes to envy the blind man despite his handicap.
I couldn’t help thinking of “Cathedral” after I met Tom McCarthy.
Tom wasn’t blind. He was a quadriplegic and the head of the Universal Access Program at the Massachusetts Department of Conservation and Recreation. We met scouting out a location on the Charles River for an event to celebrate the launch of the new Accessible Sailing Program.
When he introduced himself, I shook his left hand.
His green van was parked by the curb of our building. With a remote, the side doors opened and a mechanical lift retracted and descended to street level. Tom drove onto the platform, which lifted him into the vehicle. Inside, Tom removed the left armrest of his wheelchair and gracefully shifted himself into the driver’s seat, which rotated around 45 degrees to meet him. The entire process took about two minutes, most of it spent waiting for the lift apparatus to unfold, descend, ascend, and retract.
I was impressed. Though it was slow, the mechanism was otherwise admirably efficient and well-thought out. “Smart design,” I thought.
Despite maneuvering the giant van through the stop-and-go traffic of the inner-city, Tom proved to be a good driver, at least compared to other Boston motorists.
Taking Storrow Drive, we made our way to a dock on the Esplanade. As he was getting out of the car, he overheard my boss and me talking about the film Murderball, a documentary about the US Paralympic rugby team. “It’s a good movie,” he said, “I liked how they didn’t sentimentalize [quadriplegics] too much.”
We were greeted by Charlie Zechel of Boston’s Community Boating, Inc. I noticed that Tom shook with his left hand again. Charlie led us out to the dock where he showed us the new prototype.
He explained all of the modifications his team had made to the boat. I don’t know much about sailing; I have never been on a sailboat, nor do I know anyone who sails for sport. But while all of the nautical terminology went right over my head, I couldn’t help thinking how extraordinarily clever the prototype was.
At the center of the vessel was a single-person seat taken from a dune buggy. This particular seat was chosen because of its stable shape. The adjustable wooden dashboard featured a large silver steering wheel. Every line on the boat—controlling everything from the sails to the rudder—could be operated from the console.. Tom was amused that they had even installed a cup holder.
Safety concerns were also addressed. A heightened boom (the pole perpendicular to the mast) keeps the sail from swinging into the pilot’s way. The keel of the boat was deepened, and two large floats were placed at the bow and stern in case the vessel tipped over.
Charlie conceded that the boat itself was not built from scratch, but was constructed by retrofitting 15’ Cape Cod Mercurys and 23’ Sonars. Basically, they had stripped the original boats down to the bare bones and built them back up. Although there are many accessible sailing programs throughout the country, Charlie was proud to say this was the first known adaptation to a boat of this type.
Naturally, the test runs of the boat had been wildly successful.
“This is the first model,” he said, adding that they’d be improving the design each year. It’s hard to imagine how one could improve a project that was already so well-thought out. Why couldn’t everything be created with this kind of careful attention?
The Accessible Sailing Program is a great example of user-centered design, a philosophy that boils down to multi-step problem solving. The Community Boating team adjusted the make of the boat to accommodate, not accept, each limitation of its driver. Most admirably, no part of the universal sailing experience is diminished.
In a world where people are constantly struggling with clumsy design—poor user interfaces, products made for form rather than function—it’s refreshing to see that there are some folks out there with enough heart to make something that really works the way it should. Time and effort seem to be the key.
Akin to the blind man from “Cathedral,” people like Tom and the Community Boating team behind the Accessible Sailing Program don’t need to be pitied. They have a better grasp on what’s important than we do.
And in the end, that’s why they understand smart design.