Unless you or a loved one has a disability, you probably haven’t spent much time thinking about how some people navigate what for the rest of us are the simplest of activities. “Access + Ability,” which runs at Cooper Hewitt through Sept. 3, 2018, highlights this reality: many of the items on display owe their creation to someone who couldn’t find a suitable product for their own use in the marketplace.
Fortunately, the exhibition, curated by Cara McCarty, director of curatorial at Cooper Hewitt, and Rochelle Steiner, a professor of critical studies at the Roski School of Art & Design at the University of Southern California, also reveals that a growing number of designers—including architecture students—have woken up to the needs of this often overlooked group.
Consider the Los Angeles County Voting Booth prototype designed by IDEO, Digital Foundry, and Cambridge Consultants, which will enable voters with limited vision or hearing, or who use wheelchairs or have learning disabilities, to more easily cast their ballots. Or the simple yet indispensable PillPack, created by Gen Suzuki and designers at IDEO, which presorts and organizes daily medications and helps prevent missed doses.
In other cases, the products on display add flair to existing, often utilitarian, technology. Prosthetic leg covers, designed and manufactured by McCauley Wanner and Ryan Palibroda for Alleles Design Studio, can transform these devices into fashion statements. In the case of the racing wheelchair that BMW Designworks specifically tailored to the athletes Tatyana McFadden and Chelsea McClammer, the goal was boosting athletic performance: McFadden and McClammer won seven medals between them in the 2016 Summer Paralympic Games in Rio de Janeiro.
All together, the exhibits help inspire considerable empathy for the needs of people with disabilities, and demonstrate how designers have started to meet those needs with both skill and ingenuity.