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Hold up, you're disabled?!

Hi. I’m Diana Kamada. I’m 26, I live in Boston, and I started a product design company to make products that empower people with disabilities. It also happens that I have a disability. Since high school, I’ve been diagnosed with an autoimmune disorder called Celiac Disease. You might be thinking, “Wait a minute, that’s not a disability, that’s just a food allergy” or “Here goes another person on the internet complaining about gluten,” but in reality, having Celiac impacts every decision I make since it only takes a microscopic amount (20ppm!) of cross-contamination to trigger a flare and potentially cause permanent damage to my organs. How big is 20ppm? It's only the size of a ballpoint pen tip!

an infographic explaining the threshold for gluten consumption and a visualization of the 10 mg gluten per day limit as the size of the tip of a ballpoint pen

You’ve probably heard Celiac mentioned before, but you may not know what it actually is. There are lots of physical symptoms: eating gluten not only gives me serious indigestion, but it can also burn holes in my intestines with repeated exposure, can affect everything from my bone density to hair loss, and gives me fatigue. In other words, it fundamentally changes the way I interact with the world in many scenarios. Here’s a great graphic from Schar, maker of many gluten-free food products I love, further explaining some of the emotional or interpersonal impacts Celiac Disease can have:

The mental health impact of Celiac Disease can include: exclusion from social events, strained relationships with friends/family, disordered eating or eating disorders, social anxiety (eating out, with friends/family), avoiding travel, never having a day off from thinking about Celiac, depression, social isolation, dealing with awkward conversations, anger, irritability, and mood issues

When I first got diagnosed with Celiac, I didn’t think it qualified as a disability. At that time, my understanding of disability was pretty much limited to wheelchair users and visual impairments, so it didn’t even cross my mind. It wasn’t until I went to Brown University that I was educated about the huge variety of disabilities, the different impacts they can have on people’s lives, and the inclusion of mental illness and chronic illness in the disability community.

Once I was introduced to the disability community, I found a home unlike any other I’d experienced before. Suddenly, I had friends who not only understood the struggle of dealing with inaccessibility (looking at you college dining halls), but had their own and were always looking to support me however they could.

While at Brown, I took an amazing course on the history of the disability justice movement with Professor Sarah Skeels. In that course, I learned about the diversity of disability and the systemic barriers that can be all but invisible to those who don’t have to navigate them. It led me to narrow my focus from mechanical engineering and industrial design to product design for people with disabilities.

My last year at Brown, I was looking for jobs at product design firms that solely created products with and for people with disabilities. If you’re in the disability community, you can probably guess I had a hard time finding one. At the same time, I was working on my capstone project, working with Sarah and two other students to design an accessible solution for grocery shopping as a wheelchair user. Sarah was kind enough to introduce us to other local wheelchair users who demonstrated enthusiasm for the product, and so the LapSnap was born.

Four white women holding early prototypes of the LapSnap smile in a grocery store. One uses a wheelchair.
Trying early prototypes with co-designers Chloe and Hannah, and early user-tester and disability advocate Tina!

I’m not a biochemist, so I have no idea how to solve the problems I face as a result of having Celiac Disease. Luckily, there are lots of very smart people out there working on it as we speak. However, this journey of self-discovery inspired me to do what I can to be a better designer for others in my community. Non-disabled designers can do their best to address problems related to disability, but may not have the ability to empathize fully with their intended users. As a designer with disabilities, I knew the communities I was trying to help needed to be part of the process from concept to market. Who knew eating so many Cheerios would lead me to a whole new career?

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