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Installation view of "Access + Ability."
Chris J. Gauthier/Smithsonian Institution

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Design within reach

The Cooper-Hewitt’s latest exhibition clarifies why accessible design is not a privilege, but a right

They don’t call it a radio, because who has a radio anymore? Yet the brick-like shape; the round, cloth-covered speaker; and the two oversized controls say “radio” to anyone born in the first half of the 20th century.

Even if you have dementia, you can see the box on a countertop, say, and intuitively know that it plays music. And if you touch the box, you’ll find only two possible actions: Press the oblong button (nothing happens) or lift the lid on top.

Voila! Music.

The Simple Music Player (2014), designed by Lyndon Owen, Maurice Thompson, and Bruce Barnet, comes pre-loaded with big-band songs because they’re a) free and b) popular with the audience for which the player was designed. But the player can be loaded with 3,500 minutes of anything—podcasts, audiobooks, classical, pop, rap—through a USB port hidden on the back. Lift the lid, music plays. Drop the lid, music stops.

“I like listening to Pandora,” says Barnet, “and I keep it on because I want to know what the next song will be. It’s the opposite when you get older. You want structure. You want to know what happens next.” So the music starts exactly where it left off, always in the same order. (The button is to skip a song.)

If you have dementia, Alzheimer’s, memory loss, or autism, music can relax you, improve your mood, and even stimulate your appetite. But in a world where music is often embedded inside a smooth-surfaced device that does so many other distracting things, the Simple Music Player offers independence by paring away.

“Pushing a button, turning a knob becomes out of their spectrum,” Barnet says. “If there are five buttons, they will push all of them, or none.” The lid can be lifted with other parts of the body, too, for those with stiff or shaky hands.

It offers access to entertainment to those who are unable to leave the house, and the independence to access that entertainment on demand, neatly illustrating the theme of the Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum’s new exhibition, Access+Ability, co-curated by Cara McCarty and Rochelle Steiner. The exhibition, which runs through September, features 70 works of inclusive design, ranging from the card game UNO reconfigured for people who are colorblind to a shirt that offers people who are deaf the chance to experience a symphony through their clothes.

Thirty years ago, when McCarty curated an exhibition on the same theme at MoMA called “Designs for Independent Living,” digital technology wasn’t part of the conversation. “Beauty is found in [these objects’] economy of design, and the purity of form is determined by their function,” she wrote in that long-ago exhibition brochure—still applicable today, and forever.

Installation view of "Access + Ability."
Chris J. Gauthier/Smithsonian Institution

While there are cuter and flashier objects at the museum—the music player’s neighbor is an interactive robot puppy—the not-radio attracted me both with its neo-1950s style and with its range. It doesn’t take a diagnosis to feel that it is difficult to make music play where you want, when you want in your home. Tens of such flashes of frustration provoked these designs; seeing them all together was both exhilarating and bracing. How many more frustrations are yet to be addressed? How can we bring music to everyone denied the pleasure?

The social model of disability, in fact, argues just that: Disability is enhanced by the organization (in other words, by the design) of our world. This model, supported by many advocates for disability rights, puts the onus for change on services and structures outside the body, rather than on bio-medical intervention. If we change that organization—large-print curatorial labels at a museum, or spoken-word recordings of collection objects, or ramps—more people are able to use what is on offer.

Afari mobility aid, 2010-14. Designed by Elizabeth Depoy and Stephen Gilson. Manufactured by Mobility Technologies. Aluminum, BMX bike wheels, bike components.
Courtesy of Mobility Technologies

While the exhibition doesn’t foreground the body—like most design shows, objects are the star—through those high-tech, low-tech, sparkly, wooden, haptic objects, the abled viewer gets a sense of the range of conditions the word “disability” is called upon to cover. An REI aesthetic is one of the pervasive themes of Access+Ability, capitalizing on advanced materials and tech made for elite athletes. The look underscores the premise that people with disabilities go everywhere—and should have the tools to do so.

The retro, radius-corner look of the Simple Music Player has also been applied to a number of objects, offering style choices in categories that may previously have included only a single product. The Match Cooking Prep System (2012) was designed by Amanda Savitzky to help her brother, who is on the autism spectrum, make food for himself. Corningware-shape prep bowls and graded, color-coded measuring cups are keyed to a set of iOS recipes. Each piece has a magnetized place on a wooden board routed out like a puzzle to make it easy to put it back in place. The recipes are presented as a slideshow, with measurements shown as two red cups, or one green, rather than numerically. Savitzky puts modernist ideas about visual directions, color-coding, and organization to new use.

Soundshirt; Designed by Francesca Rosella and Ryan Genz for CuteCircuit; Stretch microfiber fabric with laser-cut decoration and embedded with 16 micro-actuators.
Courtesy of CuteCircuit

“We are challenging the dominant prosthetic material palettes of ‘realistic’ pink plastics and cyborg-like carbon fibre,” reads the project website for Hands of X, which offers seasonal, fashionable prosthetic hands in wood and felt, inspired by Camper and Muji. Assistive hands by Evan Kuester, 3D-printed in black nylon, resemble Victorian lace gloves, while Elana Langer’s Earring Aids sparkle with Swarovski crystals. I thought of my friends’ young son, who wears hearing aids and loves purple, and wondered if even now he has the option to combine the two.

The Cooper Hewitt has also used the exhibition as an opportunity to look within. The contents of Access+Ability are not a pat on the back, but a provocation to address more problems of access, some inside the building. When the museum reopened in 2014 after a long renovation, the new spaces conformed to the requirements set out in the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act: a ramp to the front door, an elevator from the garden. The museum’s digital tables work from sitting or standing positions. Signs are in Braille. But meeting the requirements is not the same thing as being accessible—much less welcoming—to all.

“Very few places around here are ranked,” says McCarty of AccessNow (2015), a crowd-sourced app designed by Maayan Ziv that provides a Yelp-like array of reviews of the accessibility of pinned locations.

To that end, the museum has invited experts from a variety of disciplines to take a closer look at both its physical plant and its website. The website will soon offer audio description of exhibitions, video of all public programs, and verbal descriptions of collections images. Large-type versions of all collection labels are available, if you know to ask, at the admissions desk. Touch tours to serve the blind kicked off with the current Joris Laarman show, which features a line-up of curvy chairs of the same dimensions made from differently shaped bits. A verbal description might render them identical, but the fingers can feel that one is all squares, another interlocking puzzle pieces.

Los Angeles County Voting Booth (Prototype; to be produced for 2020 election), 2015; Designed by IDEO, Digital Foundry, Cambridge Consultants; Lent by IDEO.
Courtesy of IDEO

Nine months ago, Cooper Hewitt began opening exhibitions an hour early for those on the autism spectrum, who may not like crowds; that is now a permanent part of their programming. When the weather warms up they may add one of Magical Bridge Foundation’s retreat spaces to the museum garden; the foundation, whose Palo Alto playground is featured in the show, focuses on the design and funding of inclusive outdoor play. In early February, the museum is planning a series of events around making and accessibility, from a hooked-rug workshop with guest artists from Creative Growth Art Center to Mark Morris’s Dance for Parkinson’s program taking over the third-floor gallery with movement.

The most [music swells] evocation of access in the exhibit is IDEO’s voting booth, which will be adopted in Los Angeles for the 2020 election cycle. It is a far cry from the spindly, chest-high privacy screens with pen, paper, and folder I’m used to in Brooklyn. The IDEO booth is roll-in or walk-up, with a built-in adjustable tablet and separate oversized cursor controls for those who can’t touch-screen. There’s a read-aloud option and 11 foreign language choices.

The components are made to be swapped in and out, so the booths can be customized for different locations and won’t immediately be rendered obsolete—a welcome bit of humility. Nothing, the design says, should keep you from voting. And they are going to keep working until everyone has equal access.

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