Access + Ability Exhibit

I wish I had the words to describe my experience visiting the Access + Ability Exhibit at the Cooper Hewitt Museum. Previously, disabilities and disability awareness has always been approached through a glance down the nose. Disabled people are often patronized, wrongfully stereotyped, and forced into the image that is often oppressive. The Cooper Hewitt had an alternative approach. Rather than deem those with disabilities as unfortunate, downtrodden, and limited, it chose to view them as who they are and the problems they are facing beyond medical conditions. As of right now, those with disabilities are looked over by large corporations and this neglect trickles down into the realm of independent choices. The link connecting problems, ideas, and solutions has been snapped. However, the Access + Ability Exhibit shines a new ray of light on design for disabled bodies. It does so by featuring prototypes and products designed for those with disabilities in mind, keeping the idea of empathy and consumer choice in perspective.

    Example 1. I used to volunteer at a pre-school. I remember the teachers warning me about the upcoming winter season when I first started volunteering in the fall. I wondered why this was, until it was playtime. As the clock struck at 4:15, the students were bursting with energy and ready to go outside. There was only one issue, they were too tiny to put on each layer of their clothes. Sweet giggles turned into shrills and tears fell into the toddler’s wide-open, screaming mouths. Come Springtime, the children were back to their sweet selves, and the evil coats and scarves were tucked away in closets, never to appear again until the next winter. I had forgotten all about it up until I saw the purple down jacket at Cooper Hewitt. I instantly recognized the terror that was a child’s overcoat. What I did not realize was that there are children out there who face greater challenges than the ones I volunteered for. But, just like the children I volunteered for, they are unable to dress themselves. I felt that the design of this jacket was clever, seeing as the structure of the coat appeared sturdy. The child would be kept warm and wouldn’t be exposed to the harsh cold if the velcro snaps secured it in place. I also appreciated the discreet placement of the velcro, sneaking it into the seem(?) of the jacket. I feel that this choice was most likely out of concern for the wearer, seeing as a child would feel more self-conscious of his/her coat if it had a different construction of his/her peers. This concept could fit into the design principle nine: working toward non-exploitative solutions. I feel that this product complies best with design principle two: center the voices of those who are directly impacted. This is because it is addressing the concerns of both the parents of disabled students, who must dress their children, and the disabled students themselves, who must ultimately wear the garment.

Example 2. My next example is the LOLA App. First, I will discuss the benefits of the app. It is discreet, playful, practical, and has a good way of reaching its target audience–early teens to adults with a diagnosis on the autism spectrum. The app contains silly gifs of popular TV and movie characters, a clean design interface with a legible font, a limited color palette, and familiar vocabulary associated with therapy and coaching (challenges, goals, etc). The daily reminders are simple phrases and are to the point, the silly gifs connect the action to a visual component, which can trigger a positive emotional response. For example, it may be less pressure for someone within the autism spectrum to watch a vampire brushing his teeth than to be told by her parents to do that action. It familiarizes rituals of self-care and grooming in a visual language that is reachable to them. This fits into design categories six: everyone is an expert based on their own lived experience, eight: working towards sustainable, community-led and community controlled designs, and three: prioritizing design’s impact on the community.  The app is meant to be a resource to help disabled individuals navigate their way through day-to-day challenges, even if those challenges may be invisible to able-bodied people. An example of this is the reminder to wipe your mouth after eating or remembering to put on deodorant. This can function as a community-led and controlled system if the community of those on the Autism spectrum are able to incorporate and customize their own settings based on their challenges. For example, say a user of the app has a pet, he or she should be able to include a reminder to feed it, groom it, and take it out. The app does prioritize the community–but it does have its limits. There are a few drawbacks of LOLA. First, LOLA appears to only be available on smart devices, which run an average cost of $600. While Autism does not disproportionately impact certain socio-economic groups, not everyone is able to afford a luxury tech device. While the app itself is free, it runs on a costly device and that can restrict the amount of users able to take advantage of the service. Because of this, I think that LOLA is a good idea, and can be incredibly useful to those who need it. However, I think it should be more accessible to those from a wider variety of socio-economic backgrounds and settings should be customized per user.

Ex 3.  My third example is the classic card game Uno. I was impressed by Mattel for acknowledging its stature in the toy market and its influence in the family household. I appreciated the fact that they took the initiative to alter (and improve) a game that was already considered one of the best-selling games worldwide. This fits into design categories three and seven. Mattel took into account the family community, the ritual of a game night, or the act of bonding with new friends. Card games are an intimate ritual, and the exclusion of such a primal act of play can be upsetting to anyone at any age, especially a child. Colorblindness effects 1 in 12 men and 1 in 200 women around the world (, and Mattel recognizes that these men and women belong to groups that enjoy play and togetherness. So, when it collaborated with a colorblindness coalition to redesign its famous game, it was taking the heart of its consumers into account. This redesign of Uno cards has also been away to spread colorblind awareness to larger communities. The geometric markings on the design are a clear way of marking specific colors and maintaining the international appeal of the game (if green were marked “G” it would have to be marked “V” in French-speaking countries to represent the color vert). Ultimately, I think that the redesign is successful in maintaining the integrity of the original game while making it more inclusive for new players.

I was delighted to see the exhibit at the Cooper Hewitt, and I hope to find ways to incorporate the design principles into my projects in the future.

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