“Accessible America: A History of Disability and Design” by Bess Williamson— A Look at Designing for the Disabled

Williamson, Bess. “Accessible America: A History of Disability and Design”, NYU Press, 2019. A Look at Designing for the Disabled Amos Lassen I feel certain that I can say that most of us do not think about designs for the disabled if it does not affect us directly. Do we even know why the blue button for automatic doors is there and used curb cuts while out walking. These are what is known as accessible design and is meant for those with physical, sensory, and cognitive disabilities. It was not always this way. Disability advocates fought tirelessly to ensure that the needs of people with disabilities became a standard part of public design thinking. This was a fight that took many different forms globally, but in the United States it became a civil rights issue and activists used design to make an argument about the place of people with disabilities in public life. After World War II, injured veterans returned home and the polio epidemic  was raging. The needs of people with disabilities came forcibly into the public eye as they never had before. The U.S. became the first country to enact federal accessibility laws, beginning with the Architectural Barriers Act in 1968 and continuing through the landmark Americans with Disabilities Act in 1990, bringing about a wholesale rethinking of our built environment. This progression wasn’t straightforward or was it easily achieved. Early legislation and design efforts were often haphazard or poorly implemented, with decidedly mixed results. There was strong political resistance to accommodating the needs of people with disabilities and there was resistance among architectural and industrial designers, for whom accessible design wasn’t “real” design. Writer Bess Williamson gives us an extraordinary look at everyday design, uniting accessibility with aesthetic, to provide an insight into a world in which we are all active participants, but often passive onlookers. With stories of politics and innovation, we go through this important history, showing how American ideas of individualism and rights came to shape the material world and often did so with unexpected consequences. This is an incredibly informative history of accessibility design in the United States that begins around World War II and ends in modern times. The book is largely focused on those who are either paralyzed or missing limbs. Whether this is because disability discourse did not include other disabilities or whether Williamson herself chose to only focus on this subset of disabilities is not really explained. Williams looks into the evolving changes in society in regards to how we view and interact with the disabled. We have a balanced and informative look at the changing attitudes towards disability in the United States over the decades and we become very aware of the amount of research went into the book. Many of the facts that Williamson shares are truly fascinating, resources. While this can certainly be an academic text for research or design courses, it is also  an excellent resource for both research and teaching as well as for lay readers in the field. I thoroughly enjoyed this book because for the last tree hears I have been involved in a program of making synagogues and temples accessible for people with disabilities. I found the book to be extremely relevant and useful.

Leave a Reply