Personalised assistive products: Managing stigma and expressing the self

Susanne Jacobson

Research output: ThesisDoctoral ThesisMonograph


In the design of assistive products, the focus is on the products’ assistive utility functions. Less attention is paid to functions which could allow users to identify with the products, or to express their identities. Associations that assistive products create are seldom addressed. More research has been carried out on the stigma of disability than on the possible stigma caused by assistive products. Yet, it appears that rather than experiencing disability as stigmatising, particularly young people associate stigma with using assistive products and attempt to influence that. Personalisation of assistive products is a phenomenon that has not yet been studied, at least not from the viewpoint of managing stigma. In this doctoral research, the stigma of using assistive products is explored from the viewpoint of design. Answers are sought for how young adults with physical disability experience the design of assistive products (including accessible space) in use, what the assumed stigma associated with the products is like, and how young adults manage the stigma. A perspective is adopted, which considers people with disability as active and inventive in relation to their assistive products. The personalization of assistive products is explored as a means of managing the assumed stigma. The phenomenon of personalising assistive products is approached as a case. Understanding the phenomenon is gained by exploring literature on products’ role in identification, a questionnaire on assistive device satisfaction, an Internet database about users’ inventive product modifications, interviews with professionals who work with users, and interviews with users who have personalised their assistive products. A theoretical framework, which has also guided the analysis of the data, considers the role of products in identification. The social and material construction of the self, similarity and difference between people, and the emergence of roles, types and stereotypes are unfolded. The meaning of products in constructing and expressing the self is explored. Perceiving and interpreting products, various product functions and managing impression with products are discussed. Particularly products that stigmatise and stereotype are in the focus and light is shed on the nature and emergence of stigma, the assumed stigma of using assistive products, and people’s techniques in managing stigma. Diverse angles help understand the multifaceted consequences of using assistive products. The findings are organised into a typology where users’ experiences of both ready-made and personalised assistive products are categorised into types and subtypes, which describe the various functions assistive products can have. The negative types, Instruments, Misrepresentations and Uniforms, reveal the complexity of the stigma associated with current ready-made assistive products. The neutral types, Shields and Mainstream Products, show how users managed the stigma by personalising the products. The positive types, Accessories, Handicrafts and Prestige Items, introduce how personalisation can be extended to expressing the self. The research reveals how personalisation adds aesthetic, social and identity functions to products that have previously been considered as having primarily assistive ones. Assistiveness is proposed as a shared semantic quality of assistive products, which could be adjusted through personalisation. The research is positioned in the field of design research in industrial and strategic design. In studying assistive products’ role in expressing and constructing their users’ identities, the research interconnects conceptions of user experience, inclusive design and design semantics. The research contributes to earlier research by discussing the problematics of assistive products also from the viewpoint of design. It shows that design can have a significant role in diminishing the stigma of assistive products, and how users view themselves and are viewed by other people. The research proposes that more expertise is needed in managing what is involved in the use of assistive products and presents benefits that engaging users and designers in the process can have. By introducing personalised assistive products and their functions that extend beyond assistive ones, the research proposes that assistive products need to, and also can be, viewed as any products.
Translated title of the contributionPersonalised assistive products : managing stigma and expressing the self
Original languageEnglish
QualificationDoctor's degree
Awarding Institution
  • Aalto University
  • Koskinen, Ilpo, Supervising Professor
  • Vihma, Susann, Thesis Advisor
Print ISBNs978-952-60-5499-5
Electronic ISBNs978-952-60-5500-8
Publication statusPublished - 2014
MoE publication typeG4 Doctoral dissertation (monograph)


  • physical disability
  • young adults
  • assistive products
  • personalisation
  • industrial design
  • stigma


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