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Blazing a Better Path to Old Age : Practical View: Products made only for the young and able irritate Patricia Moore. Her "universal" designs embrace the needs of all people.

April 29, 1993|CONNIE KOENENN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

PHOENIX — Patricia Moore twirls her carousel of color slides vigorously, searching for the one that illustrates her point. It's a sign she photographed at the Smithsonian Institution. It says: "Handicapped Ramp."

"I went up to the guard and asked if he could tell me where to find the 'regular' ramp," she says. "Speak English--why couldn't the sign just say 'ramp?' "

Moore is incensed by the labels that set people apart: disabled, handicapped, senior, muppie, geriatric, oldster.

Such designations, she says, suggest that certain groups of people are inadequate because they need special equipment or services to function in society.

The reality, says industrial designer-consumer advocate Moore, is they are the victims of poor design--a world whose products and residences and workplaces were created with only the healthy, agile consumer in mind. She dismisses this approach as "Darwinian."

"We disable people," Moore, 40, tells audiences of designers and architects and engineers and planners as she crisscrosses the country beating the drums for a wholesale redesign of our structural environment.

Moore looks at a typical kitchen and finds 50 ways to improve it: Why not have pull-out shelves for bulky appliances like blenders and food processors? Why not adjustable sinks and countertops? What about a hands-free speaker phone or voice-activated light switches?

Moore has designed such products as pill bottles with a built-in timer in the twist top, "Good Grip" kitchen utensils for people with diminished hand strength and a snap-top lid for a Tide box.

"It is not enough to assume that if well-bodied individuals can use a certain piece of equipment, then it is properly designed," she says. "If an automated-teller machine can't be reached by a wheelchair user, then that person has been unjustly limited."

There is no reason, she says, to have two sets of products--one for the fit and agile and a second for the elderly or physically challenged.

Moore is a leading advocate for "universal design," in which products embrace "the needs of all consumers."

"Someone with arthritis or low vision, a latchkey kid or your grandmother, should be able to maintain themselves safely in their own home."

It's a simple message, but one not everybody is eager to hear.

"By the time I was 26 and working as a product designer in New York, I was getting a real clarity that no one was going to listen to me."

Moore persisted. Over a three-year period, from 1979 to 1982, she disguised herself as a woman in her 80s, then took on such everyday tasks as shopping. The experience of being an old person in a youth-oriented society has shaped her work since.

*

It was by chance that Moore struck up a conversation with NBC makeup designer Barbara Kelly at a party in 1979. Their instant rapport was one of those "sisters separated at birth things," recalls Moore. When Kelly described her work, which included creating the look of the Coneheads on "Saturday Night Live," Moore, on a whim, requested to be made up like an old woman.

"I'd been invited to an architectural conference in Columbus, Ohio, on nursing homes for the elderly," she says. "I thought it might be interesting to attend as an elder."

Kelly used body wraps to keep Moore slightly hunched, balsa knee splints to stiffen her walk, ear plugs, Vaseline on her eyelashes to blur her sight, taped-down thumbs under cotton gloves to simulate arthritis. Kelly also designed a set of lightweight prosthetic pieces to provide natural-looking wrinkles and folds under latex skin.

The disguise changed Moore's relationship with the world. The first thing she learned, as the only old person at the conference, was that she didn't exist. "Everybody was getting acquainted, but nobody wanted to talk to me," she says. "It was like a stigma."

Moore had studied gerontology, had read about older people being disregarded. Now she was living it. "I just became part of the wallpaper," she recalls.

She put on her act not only in New York but also on business trips, eventually covering 14 states. "I got to the point where I could pull it together when I had to run to this meeting or that."

Her octogenarians ranged from bag ladies to affluent matrons who struck up park-bench conversations, tried to cross streets before lights changed and fumbled with change in the supermarket checkout line while people behind her muttered in irritation. Airports became a physical nightmare with their hordes of rushing travelers and slick tile floors. In stores, she was often shortchanged by "people who thought I was too ditzy to notice."

People were more likely to jockey ahead of Moore, as an old woman, in the checkout line, and she found herself accepting it. She began to buy into the fact that, as a "little old lady," she was unimportant, an attitude psychologists call "identification with the aggressor."

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