Creative design for the disabled — and everybody else too
NEW YORK — From snazzy canes to tremor-proof spoons to a racing wheelchair, a new exhibit at the Cooper Hewitt Smithsonian Design Museum highlights a surge in designs for and by those with a wide range of disabilities.
“The show really celebrates this proliferation of designing today for people with physical, cognitive and sensory disabilities. More than that, it’s about attitudes toward designing for a wider group of users so you don’t have to have so many separate objects. It’s a new spirit of inclusiveness in design,” says Cara McCarty, director of Curatorial at Cooper Hewitt.
McCarty co-curated the “Access and Ability” exhibit, on view through Sept. 3, with Rochelle Steiner, curator and professor of critical studies at the Roski School of Art and Design at the University of Southern California.
“The emphasis is on what people can do, not on what they can’t,” McCarty says.
There’s a shower safety bar that also serves as an eye-catching shower caddy; pill containers with a light-up reminder feature; and Velcro wallpaper where the memory-challenged can park their phones and remotes.
The show focuses on designs of the last decade that are both fashionable and functional.
“It’s important to realize that most people have some kind of disability at some point in their life, whether it’s hearing or eyesight or memory, and the majority of disabilities are invisible to others, so it’s much more common than you might think,” McCarty says.
The goal of the more than 70 designs featured is to expand people’s ability to lead independent and dignified lives, engaging more fully with the world.
McCarty points out that many designs meant to help those with disabilities, such as OXO Good Grips products, which were originally designed to help people with arthritis, can turn out to make common household tasks easier for everyone. Like OXO products, a number of these designs are easily available and affordable. A children’s winter jacket featured in the show, with zip-off sleeves and Velcro sides, is available at Target stores.
Other items on display, such as compression socks in an array of attractive patterns, are for sale in the museum shop.
The exhibit is organized into three sections: Moving, Connecting and Living.
The Moving section includes the racing wheelchair designed by Designworks and made by BMW, and a colorful array of canes. A prototype of a “Walking Stick System” designed by Michael Graves Architecture and Design is lightweight, eye-catching and can stand up on its own. The “Chatfield Walking Cane,” designed by Matthew Kroeker, is made of cast aluminum and walnut, with bright silicone handles made to be grippy and not slide as easily when leaned against a wall. One walking stick includes a built-in flashlight.
The Connecting gallery features a voting booth designed for use in Los Angeles County starting in 2020. Designed by IDEO, a firm in Palo Alto, California, the yellow booth is wheelchair-height, and features headphones in addition to a large touch-screen with instructions in many languages.
In the final gallery, devoted to everyday life, a colorful square prototype of a “Shower Trellis Grab Bar with Shelf, Sprayer Holder and Hook,” designed by Michael Graves Architecture and Design, is multifunctional and meant to replace standard bathroom safety rails that can make home bathrooms resemble those in hospitals.
The AdhereTech Smart Pill Bottle lights up — and will signal a caregiver’s phone — when it’s time to take a medication, and the Liftware Level spoon is designed to stay steady even if the hand of the person holding it isn’t.
A gallery adjacent to the exhibition is devoted to new designs as well as crowd-sourced suggestions for design ideas of the future. The works stem from a partnership between the museum and Pratt Institute, in collaboration with CaringKind, a nonprofit dedicated to Alzheimer’s caregiving.
Here, velvety-looking floral wallpaper made of Velcro provides a home for easy-to-misplace items like remote controls. A standard walker has been outfitted with a sort of window box for small herb plants, and numerous family photos hung on the inside of a front door are meant to distract Alzheimer’s sufferers from leaving the house.
The Cooper Hewitt, in partnership with the New York Mayor’s Office for People with Disabilities, is holding a series of programs from Feb. 2 to 16 focused on inclusive design, in conjunction with the exhibit.
McCarty says the show will likely travel beyond New York, although future venues and dates have not been confirmed.