We’re living in an increasingly customizable world; everything we use can be tailored to fit our changing needs or desires. When it comes to products that assist people with disabilities, however, design choice and aesthetics tend to take a backseat to utility. These products are often purely function, designed through a medicalized lens that reinforces the social stigma associated with assistive devices.
But consider for a second that that all design is fundamentally assistive. Why wouldn’t accessible design provide its end users with the same variety of choice that any other well-designed consumer product would?
At Cooper Hewitt’s new exhibition Access + Ability, curators Cara McCarty and Rochelle Steiner have assembled over 70 innovative objects that eschew clinical design solutions, instead highlighting forward-thinking, user-centered designs that assist people with a wide range of physical, cognitive, and sensory abilities. Steiner says, “We looked at the body, the built environment, and at the interface between the two to see how design had impacted the idea of being able to live fully and independently in the world.”
“Graphic design has been integral to communicating the diverse experiences of disability.”
To the uninitiated, it’s easy to assume that accessible design equals industrial design, as evidenced in the exhibit’s streamline racing wheelchair by BMW, it’s ergonomic cooking utensils, or bedazzled hearing aids. However, Access + Ability demonstrates that graphic design has been integral to creating a greater awareness of accessible design and communicating the diverse experiences of disability. Just look toward books that visualize what it’s like to be Dyslexic, the interface design of apps that assist the visually impaired, and even the graphic design of the exhibit itself.
“Accessibility can mean a lot of different things, especially in the context of a public space like a museum,” Steiner says. She gives examples like offering multilingual tours and display labels, or designing tactile exhibit components and reading material set at an increased font size for visitors with low vision. “This question of physical and cognitive accessibility is starting to emerge as being increasingly important because people learn and take in information differently. Cooper Hewitt is really interested in this question of access on an institutional basis, and graphic design can help create a museum experience that is inclusive and accessible to all patrons. To have a ramp for a wheelchair is a starting point, but it’s not an endpoint.”
McCarty first curated an exhibit focused on accessible design 30 years ago at MoMA, with the 1988 show Designs for Independent Living. Since then, technology has dramatically evolved, and it plays a key role in many of the new designs on display in the Cooper Hewitt show. The LOLA app, for example, creates animated and personalized reminders to support users on the Autism spectrum with daily routines and social interaction. Other apps use crowd-sourced information to help people with physical disabilities navigate barriers in the built environment; BlindWays, for instance, provides vision impaired users with reliable navigational clues to bus stop locations where GPS fails. And AccessNow pinpoints and rates the accessibility status of restaurants, concert venues or other public buildings in the vein of Yelp or TripAdvisor.
“Innovations like app design and crowdsourced technology have not only changed our interpersonal relationships and the way we communicate,” says Steiner, “they’ve also changed the nature of access.”
Perhaps the best example, from a graphics perspective, of the changing nature and perception of access is the story of the International Symbol of Access. It has existed as a universal indicator for barrier-free navigation since Susanne Koefoed designed it in 1969. It’s part of the international language of ISO graphic symbols, which represent the locations of airports, elevators, train stations, and restrooms, among other things, and it is also part of the Department of Transportation’s fifty standard pictograms.
Yet the version displayed in Access + Ability is not the original. It’s a graphic intervention of this icon that replaces the original wheelchair figure’s static, passive position with an active, “italicized” form that indicates agency and independence. This redesign began as a street art campaign by Boston-based design activists Sarah Hendren and Brian Glenney and has since been adopted by several cities, businesses, and even state parks, as well as appearing internationally as an open-source decal that any design hacker can apply to her surroundings. (It was also incorporated into MoMa’s permanent collection, and has been profiled on AIGA). Inspired by campaigns like ACTUP, and Kissing Doesn’t Kill, Hendren and Glenney wanted to start a conversation through design about who has access to public space, and how we can make our existing cities more inclusive through adaptive design thinking.
The duo collaborated with designer Tim Ferguson Sauder to create a polished version of their DIY sticker prototype by creating more organic lines while still adhering to the standardized form of the other isotype icons. While critics of the redesign say that the manner in which the figure is leaning forward does not accurately represent how all wheelchair users move through space, the creators say it’s important to consider the semiotics of the updated sign.
On her blog Abler, Hendron writes, “The arm pushing a chair is symbolic—as all icons are symbols, not literal representations. Our symbol speaks to the general primacy of personhood, and to the notion that the person first decides how and why s/he will navigate the world, in the broadest literal and metaphorical terms.”
“Disability is a diverse yet universal experience that is part of the human condition.”
Steiner says the power of the icon’s new underlying message has been amplified by its open-source status. Free access to the icon invites the public to enter into a participatory design process that empowers users of the symbol and creates allies among those beyond the disability community.
The evolving International Symbol of Access and the breadth of designs featured in Access + Ability demonstrate that accessible design is anything but a niche market. One in five people currently experiences some form of disability, and as our population ages, the need to create more accessible products, services, and information will only increase. But the real achievement of the exhibition is not just that it promotes more consumer choice for individuals with disabilities. Rather, it uses design to dismantle the medicalized view of disabled and non-normative bodies and reminds us that disability is a diverse yet universal experience that is part of the human condition.