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Motivation, Kabul, Afghanistan. David Constantine

David is a wheelchair user, following a diving accident in 1982. With his collaborators, fellow RCA alumnus Simon Gue and friend Richard Frost, David set up the first Motivation project in Bangladesh in 1991 and has since worked tirelessly to build a sustainable charity that gives disabled people in the developing world access to a wheelchair that is specifically suited to their disability, need and environment.

Under David’s leadership, Motivation has become internationally recognised as a leader in designing, producing, and distributing high-quality, low-cost wheelchairs for developing countries. The charity has advised the WHO and helped to develop global standards for wheelchair design and provision; and has also developed a range of low-cost sports chairs for the International Paralympic Committee that have enabled hundreds of disabled people to take up sport for the first time.

David travels extensively around the world, giving inspirational talks and lectures on the subject of disability. He is an adviser to, and trustee of numerous organisations, and is an award-winning travel photographer.

David is a past RSA Student Design Awards award winner, and in 2010 was awarded the RSA Bicentenary Medal for his outstanding contribution to the advancement of design in industry and society. He was awarded an Honorary Doctorate by the Royal College of Art in February 2022.

Why did you decide to design a wheelchair for disabled people in developing countries?

The honest truth is I didn’t decide to do it. I was asked to do it for a piece of coursework that was part of a competition in 1989. All the students in Industrial Design and Automotive Design were asked to do it. We didn’t really have a choice. It was a 3-week programme to design a wheelchair for developing countries, it just happened to be the year that I was there at the RCA. It was one of those serendipitous things that lands on your desk. A fellow student, Simon Gue, came over to me and said ‘I guess you know a bit about wheelchairs, I know a bit about workshops in Africa, why don’t we team up’. We did and we won.

Do you think your first-hand knowledge and understanding of the need for accessibility influenced your design and desire to help others?

It’s not so much about accessibility, it’s about how the product functions and the aesthetic of it. As it was for a low-income country it’s easy to go down the path of ‘it needs to be cheap’, we can throw a few things together and it will be fine. The reality is it won’t be fine. It needs to be designed, it needs to be well finished, well produced. It needs to project what the user feels about themselves. And that is the crux of any kind of design but also the crux of something you wear or a wheelchair. You are either in it or you are not. It is not something I have a choice about. You want it to be there but not be there, and design can have a big influence on that.

Motivation, David Constantine

New technologies have enabled you to create the next generation of wheelchairs. What has changed and improved?

Obviously the materials used and the attitude to the product; the way products look and the way they function; giving the user more autonomy in the adjustment, whereas chairs used to be more fixed. You can get a customised chair which is top of the range and made just for you. But that brings very little adjustability as you’ve made choices. I would say the lightness and the weight of the materials, the additions you can make to it, the types of chairs that are available for different purposes. There are more off-road types, more sport-focused chairs. A basketball chair, for example, is different to a chair that a user would use on a day-to-day basis. Different chairs for different reasons, and that is one of the things that has changed massively – availability of choice. They are expensive and that was the aim and essence of what Motivation does; to create a low-cost version of a chair that had all the features, something that you can use to play basketball, tennis or race. They don’t need to be the price they are.

Over 75 million people worldwide need a wheelchair. Is there more to be done to reduce inequalities faced by disabled people across society?

Absolutely. The WHO are working on this a great deal and there is much more collaboration in the sector, in the last five years, than there ever has been before. This is all coming together with some big institutions like Unicef and the WHO, all of which has been really key. They are not just looking at wheelchairs, but they are also looking at all assisted devices because they recognise that the only way to get people ageing healthily is to provide access to assisted technology. The WHO estimate that about 1 billion people in the world need some form of assisted technology, be it a stick, a walking frame, a hearing aid, a wheelchair or a limb. They have created a list of the 50 essential assistive devices, which ranges from different kinds of products which should be available and to be recommended to all UN countries for what they should be looking to provide. This is being rolled out at the moment. There is focus now on looking at funding that will help sort out procurement for all different countries to bring prices down and availability up. The WHO have a figure of 1 billion at the moment, but they estimate by 2050 it will be 2 billion, so there is a warning to governments that there will be an explosion of requirements and needs. If governments want to take the impact off their health services, they need to be thinking about this type of equipment now.

You say Motivation has come a long way, but we’ve still got a lot to do. What hopes do you have for the future?

I hope it thrives and continues to break new ground. I would like it to be lots of mini Motivations in different countries running themselves, sustaining themselves and continue to break new ground through design. That is a struggle at times because the funding is a struggle to get for design. You can get funding for humanitarian or international development work in low-income countries in the field of disability. But it is very hard to get funding for design for those places as you do not fit into the criteria of what is deemed essential. Links to the design world in the UK have been every helpful and people have been very generous as they saw the need of this small organisation trying to do work in low-income countries and using design to do that. Big institutional funders don’t usually see that and thought we were a bit quirky. And we were.

David Constantine

You have always loved photography, but gave it up briefly after your accident in 1982. You have come back to it and have travelled the world capturing images of people and places. What inspired you to return to this passion?

I could not stop myself seeing pictures, like a painter, a writer or a musician. That year I gave it up and then realised it’s just a technical issue. There’s nothing stopping me from doing it and so I found a way to do it. I’ve probably spent far too much money on it for no return except the satisfaction of photographing places and people. I get immense satisfaction capturing a shot and getting to show our work. Motivation gave me a reason to be out there not just wandering the streets taking random pictures, which I did as well. It was a personal challenge, going out there and capturing images on the street, I find that more of a challenge –  it would be easier to work in a studio and set things up on a table and do food or product photography. But I’d find that really boring. The challenges of the constantly moving ebbs and flows of street life and people. Photographing people brought me closer to the essence of a country. I think there’s an ingrained artistry to anything that someone has a passion for and mine was photography.

Your practice focuses on street work and street portraits in the genre of environmental portraiture. Why this particular area?

It is more of a challenge which brings me closer to the people and a country. There is something about certain countries and they get their hooks in you. Afghanistan is the one for me and Cambodia is the one for a lot of our team at Motivation who worked there in the early nineties. For me it has a certain resonance; partly what’s gone on there in the ancient and modern history, partly the people, partly the landscape and what people are living through. Photographing people is my way of getting closer to a country.

David Constantine

We live in a world where people can pull out their phones and take pictures all the time. What constraint have you found in your photography and how have you overcome this?

I suppose all the technical issues as cameras change. I’ve got no grip; I have always carried a camera. I always have a camera under my chair. When I was at the College there would be occasions when I would say to friends ‘can you get my camera’, so I have photos from so many occasions in the days when no one had a camera. Now the world has changed, everyone has a camera. How they use it is another story. Social media has brought about a certain democratisation of photography, but there is still a place for important pictures where someone can capture the essence of a moment. That is a real skill. Everyone can carry a camera, but I can’t. I can ask someone to pick up my phone and direct it, but I still feel it’s not a real picture, maybe that’s a bit silly as they are pretty good quality now and have lots of lenses. The two restraints I guess are the technical side and actually getting out there and doing it more.

January 2022 signals new changes for you as you are stepping down from your role as Founder Director at Motivation. What new projects will you be working on?

I’ve set up Freedom through Design – which was actually one of the straplines we used for the competition when I was at the RCA. What I want to do is be able to help and guide people in the inclusion journey in the design world. What I find quite often is that there is retro refitting as someone did not think of a something early on in the design process. It is not about access, by law now everybody has to provide access to a building and a service, hopefully that will be the same for a product. When you have no hand function and cannot actually pick anything up, it means you really look at a tool or product. Touch sensitivity has become more normal. I don’t want to teach people about widths of doors and chairs. It will be about the inclusion journey, how a product or a service or a building makes one feel and what’s that journey like for someone with visual impairment or a hearing impairment or a wheelchair user and do they feel included in the mainstream. I started looking at this when I was on the board of the Design Museum. I was very keen when we changed buildings, partly because of the architecture, but partly because of the system. I had to ask staff members to help me upstairs and let me in and out. I felt separated from the people I visited with. It happens in theatres, cinemas and all types of buildings. 

I am President elect of the International Society of Prosthetics & Orthotics which I take on from next year. I am also Chair of the International Society of Wheelchair Professionals. I’m also finishing off a new camper van and plan to take a trip somewhere warm. I’ve designed the interior with a new shape of bed and I have made it accessible. So it’s different from what is usually designed. It’s the fifth one I’ve designed as I want more space.

This month I’ve been working on a photographic project where I’m taking 14 portraits of disability activists in Bristol. They were all activists in the 80s and 90s.  The M Shed Museum wanted to capture this piece of history and do a feature of on those who changed things. They want a photographer with lived experience of disability and contacted me.