Design with Disability

The “Accessible Icon” by Brian Glenney and Sara Hendren began as design activism: the artists defaced existing disability access symbols with red and orange vinyl stickers. Today, their so-called ...

The “Accessible Icon” by Brian Glenney and Sara Hendren began as design activism: the artists defaced existing disability access symbols with red and orange vinyl stickers. Today, their so-called “active wheelchair” logo has been adopted as the new standard by institutions and cities around the world. This clean, “accurate” image greeted visitors to the Access + Ability exhibit at the Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum, with a label that erased its history as street art: “This recent iteration that depicts a person in forward motion, propelling through space, offers a more accurate representation of people in wheelchairs as dynamic rather than static bodies. The new logo is open source and available in a multitude of sizes and formats.”

When design activism succeeds, confrontation may seem to disappear from the site of critique. Reviewing the history and politics of the project on The Accessible Icon website, Hendren et al. acknowledge that “Any effort to create new and different forms of access will necessarily close off access of other kinds.” The artists reflect at length on the limitations of the mainstreamed version of their icon: it seems optimistic rather than angry; it might be interpreted as a celebration of athleticism; it is easily co-opted as “shallow activism.”

Similarly vexed histories accompanied each of the objects in Access + Ability, although the backstories were generally unavailable to visitors. We toured the exhibit on a Saturday afternoon in February, and then saw The Senses: Design Beyond Vision after it opened in April. We knew in advance from the press release that Access + Ability contained 70 or so adaptive technologies and accessible designs from the past decade. Occupying three rooms on the first floor—themed “Moving,” “Connecting,” and “Living”—with some spillover into a hallway and the conservatory, it felt smaller than we had anticipated. Perhaps this was because so many of the objects, even the most “innovative,” were familiar to us, produced by leaders in the increasingly modish design-for-disability field, such as Graham Pullin. Indeed, the exhibit could have accompanied Pullin’s book Design Meets Disability when it was first published nine years ago. The installation was not static, however: the website invited readers to send in stories and photographs of their own technology use so the displays might be rotated and expanded. And throughout early February, in a more experimental vein, Cooper Hewitt hosted a series of “Design Access” events and workshops, partnering with the Mayor’s Office for People with Disabilities and local arts and technology companies.


“What Invisibility Looks Like”

By Jackson Arn

In the “Connecting” room, we recognized many communication and navigation tools marketed by pioneers in blindness and low vision education and research, from the Perkins BlindWays bus stop location app to the HumanWare Braille Display. Because we are familiar with HumanWare, we know that this fantastic computing terminal costs $2,995; it is therefore unavailable to most blind people, including professionals. In other words, access technologies themselves are not inherently accessible: they must be acquired, learned, and employed in welcoming settings. Moreover, refreshable Braille devices have been available in the United States since the early 1980s. Without explaining why the curators found this particular device to be an exciting model of accessibility, or mentioning cutting-edge designs for refreshable Braille—such as the Canute from Bristol Braille Technology, which displays a whole page of text at once—the exhibit risked suggesting to sighted museumgoers that there is something novel about blind people using digital technology.

Additional context also would have been helpful for the hearing aid display. Two aids created by artist Elana Langer—who models her “disability accessories” in photo shoots despite being nondisabled—were studded with crystals. Another, the Zon hearing aid provided by Stuart Karten Design, was sleek and compact, nearly invisible on the ear. The contrast between design that highlights disability and that which renders it invisible was intriguing. Again, however, the display text offered little sense of what made these particular hearing aids examples of forward-thinking design. While it is not common for users to attach jewels in the manner of the Elana Langer aids—due to the discomfort of having sharp crystals pressed against one’s ears or tangled in one’s hair—there are a range of other ways such devices are hacked or domesticated to fit aesthetic and expressive preferences, including colorful plastics and molds, functional jewelry, and tube twists like those produced by designers Hayleigh Scott and Kate Fichard (who use hearing aids themselves). The curation of objects in the “Connecting” room raised important questions, meriting explicit engagement, about what counts as innovative design and who counts as a designer.

In many cases, we weren’t sure if an exhibited item was a prototype, a consumer object, or an example of “critical design”—an approach Hendren defines as “problem finding as well as problem solving.” Critical design and interrogative design, she writes, aim at

suspending questions by pressing together, in one artifact or set of artifacts, seemingly disparate or opposing ideas; thinking about what Anthony Dunne calls “para-functionality”: design that lives among recognizable realms of utility, but expands, as he says, beyond conventional definitions of functionalism to include the poetic, or activist, or socio-political.

Prototyping, commercialization, and critical design are each valuable, as is their interlacing in a single exhibit, yet we came away feeling uncertain about the advantages of ambiguous labeling. For instance, a photograph of an enticing, wheelchair-accessible pool in Shinzuoka, Japan, was accompanied by the following label:

This wheelchair-accessible pool is part of a mountain residence designed by architect Issei Suma. It is among the amenities provided to the community of retired individuals and families that combine private spaces for living and working, and public spaces such as kitchens and access to nature—all of which are designed with accessibility in mind.

We learned, after trying to find out more about this “community” online, that the architect created the complex for his mother and her friend; it is not yet open to a broader public. What is at stake in mislabeling this private dwelling a retirement community, suggesting that such designs are actually available to disabled people? In contrast, we were surprised and delighted to find that the Väärtus Ora assistive rings—beautiful handworn tools for people with arthritis that look like art objects—can be easily and inexpensively ordered online.

Ring, Ora, from Väärtus Series, 2013. Photograph courtesy of Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum

We also encountered old ideas dressed up in new materials—despite the curatorial assertion that the designers in the exhibit “are expanding and adapting accessible products and solutions in ways previously unimaginable.” Vibrating canes, shirts, and jewelry for blind or deaf people seemed at once futuristic and belated, recalling the long history of light and sound transducers such as hearing gloves and vibrotactile chairs, all of which proved to be commercial failures. As upgraded or aesthetically polished as the present technologies may be, they are hardly unimaginable, and they are likely not “solutions” to problems physical or social.

And where, we kept asking each other as we passed through the exhibit, are the humans? Documentary representation of people and communities in a design museum can be unnecessary, distracting, and biased—restricting the meaning or relevance of a particular object. Yet Access + Ability so directly and persistently invoked a predetermined group of users and their needs—“people with disabilities”—that far more social and political framing was necessary to retool that category. If disabled people were in fact the subject of the exhibit, that collective itself should have been historicized and reimagined, rather than taken for granted.

We are also calling into question the premise that design on its own leads to significant social change. For one thing, we do not yet have an adequate theory of what sociologist Erving Goffman called the “stigma symbol”—the way artifacts like canes, hearing aids, or wheelchairs accumulate or transmit meaning and affect.1For another thing, even the Americans with Disabilities Act, which has improved the accessibility of many public spaces, has not changed the overwhelming fact of workplace discrimination, and hence standards of living and broad social inclusion for most people with disabilities.

Historian Sarah Rose explains that the term “disability” acquired its modern connotation in the United States—as an umbrella category for a miscellany of conditions—by the end of World War I, when it began to be associated with “inability to work” or lack of productivity. She argues that this was an irony and unintended consequence of workers’ compensation, which led to most employers requiring pre-employment screenings by the 1920s to eliminate people with various impairments who were newly imagined to be inefficient, careless, and likely to require future compensation costs. Even “thirty years after the passage of the ADA in 1990,” Rose writes, “nearly 30 percent of disabled people live in poverty and 70 percent of working-age adults with disabilities are unemployed.”2 The courts largely side with employers, insisting that many accommodations are unreasonably expensive or that disabled people—even those who can afford high-tech or decorative assistive technologies—are unqualified for particular jobs.

If disabled people were in fact the subject of the exhibit, that collective itself should have been historicized and reimagined, rather than taken for granted.

Who are the users of the objects in Access + Ability, then, and why does accessible design matter to them? We pored over the few clues we came across in the three rooms, for instance, a sketch of a dog by artist Emilie Gossiaux, who became blind in an accident. She uses the Brainport headset to draw now: it translates light and dark contrasts into vibrations, felt on the tongue. Pausing at the many installations of tools made by designer Michael Graves—walking sticks, wheelchair, bathing accessories—we recalled that he became interested in design for disability near the end of his life, after he was paralyzed below the waist from a viral infection, although this biographical detail wasn’t noted on the exhibition labels. How many other objects had been designed as personal solutions? Many seemed to be bespoke, but were any handmade? And how are those readily available on the consumer or medical markets inevitably domesticated by their owners: nicknamed, decorated, altered?

Artifacts such as the 2015 Los Angeles County Voting Booth Redesign, which “addresses all voters, including those unfamiliar with technology and who speak languages other than English, voters with vision and hearing loss, in wheelchairs, and with learning disabilities,” raised the question of how differences of ability, culture, and language might be made explicit rather than obscured in the case of universal design (objects and spaces built to include as many people as possible “regardless of ability”). Graham Pullin addressed this issue through customization in the Hands of X project. “Co-designed with wearers and makers,” these simple prosthetic hands are made from wood, leather, and felt in a palette of beige-to-black colors. Too minimal to be realist, they nonetheless express “everyday” variation.

The voting booth also pointed beyond the sphere of individual use that dominated most of the adaptive technology on exhibit. Disability activism and regulation (from the ADA to the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act) underpin the popular fascination with “access” in the United States today. If they have failed thus far to overturn the structural exclusions instituted by industrial capitalism, they are also under siege from the current U.S. administration. More than ever, activism and legislative change should be elevated from subtext to gallery text and catalog essay.

On the museum’s third floor, The Senses: Design Beyond Vision makes for an evocative contrast with the presentation of disability in Access + Ability. Simultaneously more pragmatic and more whimsical, its collection of objects and experiences invites museumgoers to think broadly about the ways diverse bodyminds interact with materials and environments. The integration of designs commonly understood as “accessible” with those that otherwise explore and expand sensory experience counters the idea of accessible design as a niche field—a perception that contributes to the high price points of technologies and designs marketed as “assistive.”

There is, then, something understated but politically charged in the organization of the exhibit, the juxtaposition of the joyful uselessness of a tactile orchestra—a wall of lush synthetic fur that, when petted, plays components of a string composition, the full effect of which can only be experienced when multiple people engage in the activity—and the Bradley Element Eone Timepiece, a tactile wristwatch (commercially available, if not inexpensive, at $260–$350). It is perhaps no accident that The Senses: Design Beyond Vision is itself more accessible, with wider spaces between objects to facilitate movement, displays constructed to be used by both seated and standing persons, and Braille labels. These features make explicit the idea that disabled people are museumgoers as well as users and creators of their own designs.


This article was commissioned by Anne Higonnet. icon

  1. Erving Goffman, Stigma: Notes on the Management of Spoiled Identity (Prentice Hall, 1963; Touchstone, 1986), pp. 92–93.
  2. Sarah F. Rose, No Right to Be Idle: The Invention of Disability, 1840s–1930s (University of North Carolina Press, 2017), p. 227.
Featured image: Street art campaign focused on altering wheelchair-accessible parking signs in Boston (2011). Courtesy of The Accessible Icon Project. The authors thank Liz Jackson for the phrase “design with disability.”