Accessible America: A History of Disability and Design

Bess Williamson. New York Univ, $30 (304p) ISBN 978-1-4798-9409-3
This illuminating and thoughtful overview of the evolution of accessible design in the U.S. between the end of WWII and the late 1990s is a strong introduction to the topic. Focusing on physical disability concerns, particularly for wheelchair and prosthetic limb users, design historian Williamson traces shifts in cultural norms and expectations surrounding disability and their effects on design. In the aftermath of WWII, the goal for disabled veterans was “rehabilitation,” the restoration of prior function through individual effort. Disabled people were considered responsible for “navigating and negotiating the inaccessible society,” and efforts to design for them centered around prosthetics and other tools that could render a person “independent.” In the 1970s and ’80s, designers made stylish “Universal Design” objects, like the Cuisinart and OXO Good Grips kitchen tools, that smuggled features for people with disabilities into general-market products without mentioning disability. Meanwhile, the nascent rights-based concept that people with disabilities were entitled to public accommodations sometimes led to pushback against, for example, requirements to replace aging public transit vehicles with accessible models. Last, she discusses a recent shift away from as-invisible-as-possible mobility aids toward colorful, stylish, and luxurious choices that cater to the self-expression of the user. Williamson skillfully connects design concepts to changing social narratives; this work should reward readers interested in either topic. (Jan.)
Reviewed on: 11/12/2018
Release date: 01/01/2019
Genre: Nonfiction
Paperback - 304 pages - 978-1-4798-0249-4
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