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How America’s individualistic streak shaped design for disability

DIY innovators, and consumer products, have had to fill gaps in policy

Installation view of “Access+Ability,” a recent exhibit at the Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum that featured 70 works of inclusive design.
Chris J. Gauthier

It’s perhaps predictable, in a country subscribed to a mythos of rugged individualism, frontier spirit, and all manner of bootstrap-pulling, that the United States’ approach to disability rights is focused on the individual. But as art historian Bess Williamson argues in Accessible America: A History of Disability and Design, her new book examining the evolution of accessible product design, regulations, and public spaces, that focus on the individual is in many ways detrimental to the social safety net.

“You might think that because the U.S. has a much more extensive legal apparatus related to disability than other countries, it might be the most accessible country, because it has the best federal laws,” Williamson says. “However, we don’t have a lot of the other social support that makes it easier for someone with a disability to participate in life or work.”

In 1990, the U.S. became a trailblazer with the passage of the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA), which mandated a number of design features meant to increase access. But at the same time, the country hasn’t passed universal healthcare coverage, or fund initiatives that would help Americans with disabilities access mobility services, transit, and most importantly, jobs.

Williamson says the culture of disability design, and wider cultural lens of how we view those with disabilities, focuses on access as the most important aspect of assistance.

“Generally speaking, there’s more enthusiasm for a really cool prosthetic limb, or a disabled person on a fashion runway, than a disabled person on a public bus,” she says.

From pioneering DIY prosthetics developed by returning soldiers after WWII, to Oxo’s ergonomic kitchen tools, to today’s 3D-printed wonders, such as custom wheelchairs and limbs, Williamson explores how disability design in the United States has been primarily associated with consumer products and experiences. While design for disability has become more mainstream, including the increased usage and dialogue around universal design—the idea that design that helps any user access space or use a tool helps everyone by increasing overall accessibility—the experience, insight, and innovations of the disabled community still needs to be better incorporated into our design process.

“There a lot to be said about creating a design culture change, and seeing something like the ADA as a starting point, and doing better to incorporate accessibility from the start,” Williamson says.

Accessible America offers an important history of how and why design for disability has evolved and needs to evolve. Here’s Williamson’s take on some of the current accessibility issues facing cities.

Uber, Lyft, and question of new mobility and accessibility

While the promise of ride-hailing services and, in the future, driverless cars have been held up as a great leap forward for the disabled community, the reality is much more complicated, and points to ways that riders with disabilities have been marginalized or left out of new mobility technology. As Williamson points out, while its an open question of just how well Lyft and Uber are serving the disabled community, that community wasn’t an initial part of those startups service plans, and the providers had to be legally forced to serve them.

It’s somewhat ironic in that the original means of hailing a private ride with a phone, and on-demand vehicles, like paratransit and Dial-a-Ride services, were specifically created to service the disabled community. Today’s ride-hailing companies function as privatized public transit solutions that adopt this idea.

“This kind of solution has never been applied equitably because inclusion was always tacked on, never prioritized,” she says.

In addition, the development of self-driving cars contains some of the same issues, in terms of their inclusion of riders with disabilities at the beginning stages of innovation and product design. The death of a pedestrian due to an Uber autonomous vehicle raises questions of how well driverless technology can adapt to detecting and avoiding pedestrians with disabilities.

“These are urgent issues when it comes to just about any type of technology,” Williamson says. “Disabilities aren’t thought of from the beginning, or made part of the initial approach.”

Creating housing that works for all of us

While accessibility laws such as the ADA have helped make public spaces more accessible to more Americans, improved access on private property, especially residential housing remains largely unrealized.

When the rapidly aging baby boomer population is factored in—from 2010 to 2040, the country’s nation’s 65-and-over population will grow by 90 percent—it’s clear that more focus needs to be placed on updating how we build and renovate our homes.

“Many baby boomers are discovering that even though the ADA is 30 years old, most houses don’t really allow for aging in place,” Williamson says. “The ADA set a standard for expanded design knowledge, but its applications doesn’t remain well-distributed into the individual real estate market.”

The rise of niche products for the disabled

With the advent of rapid prototyping and advanced manufacturing processes, those designers who do prioritize the experience of those with disabilities, or make them their main audience, have never found it easier to create solutions that don’t need to have a universal or mass market appeal. Bespoke Innovations, founded in 2009, offered to customize artificial limbs in much the way tailors personalize clothes.

Williamson compares this new world of choice and customization to the way we all customize our phone screens. Aimi Hamraie, a scholar and design historian at Vanderbilt, has used the term “crip technoscience” to discuss how design for and by the disabled functions as politicized design activism.

Many of today’s designers would recognize some of their own work ethics and ideas in some of the post-WWII prosthetic makers, many of whom, after finding existing options in the mass market unsatisfactory, created their own limbs, devices, or adaptations. This kind of customized technology, such as polio survivor Ida Brinkman’s suite of tools that allowed her increased activity at home despite her paralysis, fits into the long history of “consumers who have reconfigured modern technology for their own needs,” Williamson wrote.

“There’s a deep level of technological savvy that comes out of living in an inaccessible society, and confronting the misfit between how your body and mind may operate and how things are designed,” says Williamson. “There’s a lot of potential there, considering that innovation often comes out of these communities, who come together and asses what’s out there and work together.”