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Last Updated: Tuesday, 21 February 2006, 09:12 GMT
Innovative designs tackle disability
By Geoff Adams-Spink
BBC News website age & disability correspondent

When six-year-old Tilly Griffiths from Staffordshire wanted to join her elder sister's ballet class, her parents turned for help to a little known charity that designs and manufactures one-off pieces of equipment for disabled people.

Photo of Tilly Griffiths in her ballet class using her frame
The Royal Ballet School described Tilly as 'an inspiration'
The frame, in its final stages of testing before being handed over to a delighted Tilly, is just the latest in a long line of innovative and inclusive products to come from Demand - short for Design and Manufacture for Disability.

Based in an old chapel just outside Watford in Hertfordshire, Demand was set up by Lady Renton in 1980 after she was unable to find a chair in which her disabled daughter could sit comfortably.

"We have an interesting dilemma," explains Demand director Andy McBeath.

"We daren't advertise because otherwise we would be inundated and wouldn't have the capacity to manage it."

As a result, few people beyond the professionals working in adaptive technology have little idea that such a bespoke and commercially uneconomical service exists.

"80% of the things we design and manufacture are for every day needs - things that make life more bearable or more comfortable," said Mr McBeath.

"The other 20% falls into a category called 'opportunity' - providing the chance to take part in leisure activities or sporting competitions where the person wouldn't normally be able to participate at all, but for specially adapted sports or leisure equipment."

Form and function

As well as designing and making the ballet frame for Tilly Griffiths, Demand has produced state of the art skiing frames to enable people with little or no lower-body mobility to experience the thrill of the slopes.

Another of the charity's innovations is equipment for playing the game of boccia, a sort of bowls for wheelchair users.

The vast majority of our work is with individuals. The vast majority of those individuals are in no position to pay
Andy McBeath, Demand

And thanks to the ingenuity of the design and manufacturing teams, disabled children have been able to take part in the Green Power Challenge, an endurance race for battery-powered cars.

Demand has developed a vehicle that can be operated using hand controls, and into which the driver can be lifted using a hoist.

According to Mr McBeath, Demand's approach places as much emphasis on design as it does on functionality.

"It doesn't just have to do what it's go to do, but it's got to look good as well."

He attributes the organisation's success in this field to selecting students from a design background where there is a strong emphasis on aesthetics.

In the case of the skiing frames, some plastic parts were made in Kawasaki green and day-glo orange.

The result was that it wasn't just disabled children who wanted to use it. Everyone on the skiing trip wanted to have a go.

"What we try to do is to produce something that is at least production standard," said Mr McBeath. "At best, something that's outrageous, funky and which people are drawn towards."

Cost considerations

Demand operates in a niche that is completely uneconomical. The cost of producing tailor-made items for individuals would not be commercially viable.

Photo of boccia ramp
The boccia ramp can be adjusted according to the shot required
Yet individuals who approach the charity for help pay nothing for the end product.

The cost of commissions undertaken with another charity partner are split 50-50, while work undertaken for commercial or government bodies is charged at the full cost.

"The vast majority of our work is with individuals," explained Mr McBeath.

"The vast majority of those individuals are in no position to pay."

Designer Jennifer Cox started work on Tilly's ballet frame as soon as she joined Demand from Brunel University.

She says the main consideration was to come up with something that would blend in with Tilly's surroundings.

"It had to be nice and pale pink," she said.

"The one she has at the moment is quite clunky and angular. The new one is all smooth, has rounded corners, the metal tubing is thinner and the wheels are smaller."

Demand made an exception in Tilly's case. They normally operate within a 100 mile radius of their Hertfordshire base, although a similar operation is now planned for Yorkshire.

"It was such an interesting challenge that they felt they were in a position to lend a hand," said Tilly's mother, Jackie Griffiths.

With limited resources and a potentially huge need for its services, Andy McBeath says Demand has had to learn to be ruthless.

"You can help more people if you're more effective with your time."

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