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Interview with Bess Williamson: Accessible America

Cover of Accessible America: A History of Disability and Design by Bess Williamson. Colorful rounded squares with architectural drawings
Cover of Accessible America: A History of Disability and Design by Bess Williamson. Colorful rounded squares with architectural drawings

Tell me a little about yourself!

Bess Williamson: I am a professor of design history, meaning I study architecture, products, and other stuff in modern society. I work at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, where I teach Design History, Disability Studies, and direct the MA Program in Modern and Contemporary Art History. I’m originally from New York and went to graduate school near Philadelphia before moving to Chicago.

You are the author of a new book, Accessible America: A History of Disability and Design (New York University Press). What is the origin story of this book?

Bess Williamson: This book started as my dissertation in an American History program at the University of Delaware. I was interested in the ways that design responds to social movements. At the local library (Hagley Museum & Library), there was the archive of a designer named Marc Harrison, who designed the Cuisinart Food Processor. Harrison had been involved in a community of designers advocating for greater inclusion of disability access, and incorporated that learning into the design of the Cuisinart. This was my start in thinking about how design of the last 50+ years has responded to disability, sometimes in unexpected ways — for example how the Cuisinart is very rarely considered or marketed as “accessible.” Of course, once I got involved in the project my whole world opened up as I discovered a disability perspective and realized that it connected in other ways to my life story through friends and family. I do not identify as disabled though I do have a mild facial paralysis (which happened during grad school).

As a historian, what was the process like researching and writing this book that examines disability, design, and rights in the 20th Century? What are some discoveries from your research that you totally geeked out about?

Bess Williamson: The biggest discovery for me was the reality of disabled life in the 20th century. As I started the project, I had some disabled friends, but I was a fairly typical clueless abled person. One of the big misconceptions I had was that design made access — basically that mobility-disabled people were “trapped” or did not get out in public before the advent of improved ramps, curb cuts, etc. As I started to explore the 1940s-1960s I quickly realized this was not true. The most amazing geeky moment I had was when I looked up a magazine I had vaguely heard about, the Toomey J Gazette, which was basically a zine for the polio generation in the 1950s. It is packed full of photos and hand-drawn images of the DIY access work people did at home, often in rural and suburban places in America. It started out of a polio hospital in Ohio, but spread to a larger population of what they called “quads and respos” (quadriplegic and other paralyzed people, and people with “respiratory polio”). I saw it in the National Library of Medicine in DC but It is now fully available online if people want to browse through. This magazine fully tapped into my geeky historical side, but it also corrected my sense that disabled people weren’t out and about before ramps. It shows people cooking, caring for kids, and building all kinds of amazing contraptions to get past the barriers in everyday life. One guy sawed off the top of a car and installed a rotating floor so he could drive in his wheelchair and spin himself around to get in and out of it. It was a real insight into a creative disability culture of that period.

The definition of access or accessibility can vary widely–there are regulations and laws and there are individual needs depending on the environment. How do you define ‘access’? Do you think ‘total access’ or ‘universal design’ is a bit of a misnomer?

Bess Williamson: As I wrote in the great book Keywords for Disability Studies, access is something that seems to be easy to comprehend but difficult to actually achieve. I tend to think of it as a kind of ideal — the ideal of being open and available — but it’s always balanced against the very American/Western idea of autonomy and individualism. So, we say “access to healthcare” or “access to housing” but that doesn’t actually mean *having* healthcare or housing. In so many of the applications of here’s this sense that access should be a bare minimum, and that the real responsibility remains with disabled people to actually get places and do things. For example, here’s a ramp or a toilet stall or whatever, but it will be steep, hard to find, and awkward to use. Is that really access?

Aimi Hamraie and I have both written about how “universal design” as a term has a mixed legacy. I think, when it was coined in the 1980s by disabled architect Ron Mace, it really helped give the design world a positive term to define disability as valuable to design rather than a problem to fix. But it’s so optimistic that it seems to promise too much. No design can be truly universal if that means for EVERYONE. Disability activism in recent times has done a lot to assert that disability doesn’t always have to fit into a mainstream definition of function or technological progress. In fact, this is a deep part of crip wisdom that helps us resist the constant pressure of profit and productivity. So I think there is a lot of value to universal design, but it may not work as the primary buzzword to describe what disability can do for design.

What is the response from readers and reviewers like so far about your book? Is there anything surprising to you about how Accessible America has been received by the public?

Bess Williamson: It’s been great to discuss the book with people who have read it – this obviously did not happen before it came out. The greatest responses so far are from people who lived this history and find that it resonates. I was glad to be invited to speak on an NPR show – the Texas-based show Think – and have people calling in. The phone operator must have been selecting well because all of the callers were disabled people. They asked about details of the history such as veterans’ groups involvement, or current issues like advocating for “Aging in Place” guidelines (basically to have no steps and one bathroom on the first floor in all housing). All of their questions showed that access does not stand alone, but instead it is often woven into other issues. One of the callers was blind and having some issues with rural transportation access that was tied to his ability to work. The Aging in Place folks were also trying to address housing affordability so people could stay in their houses financially as well as physically. So while my book is about design, I am really excited when people who don’t think of themselves as “into design” realize it’s actually really about things that they relate to.

What is one major theme or idea that you want readers to come away with after Accessible America?

Bess Williamson: I think the big picture is that access is deeply connected to the social ideologies of America in the late 20th century. That is, that it is linked to gender, race, and class and how they are always present in a definition of who is deserving of the best of American life. Design is a broad term that can mean a lot of things, but in its best version, it is about making elegant, delightful, comfortable worlds to live in. If disabled people are not able to be full participants in making and living in those worlds, then design is falling short of what it can be.

In a recent interview with you in, you said, “Generally speaking, there’s more enthusiasm for a really cool prosthetic limb, or a disabled person on a fashion runway, than a disabled person on a public bus.” I love that quote because it speaks to the emphasis of individuals and products rather than broader systems. How can we change the current narratives on access and design? What are some ways can individuals advocate for accessibility in their local communities?

Bess Williamson: This is the reality of the design world: so many great ideas, but so often skewed toward these really specific, very visible objects that are only used by a tiny sliver of the population — and much of that media attention is on projects that don’t even go into production. I think there is a great need for that design enthusiasm that is shown for prosthetic limbs to go to much more ordinary spaces and things. The public bus statement is a reference to the Transbus, a US government-sponsored project that aimed to create the “bus of the future” in the 1970s. The auto industry resisted it, and it became the focus of a huge battle between advocacy groups and cities who were suing to not have to adopt buses with working wheelchair lifts. ADAPT’s early roots are partly in the protests over this bus issue.

As far as how to change the narrative, I do believe it’s going there somewhat with major design schools and organizations putting forward meaningful, community-informed projects rather than the more surface projects that Liz Jackson calls “Disability Dongles.” I actually see a lot of promise in what people call “call out culture” because it is all about going deeper than the most obvious messages and learning more. I think the sharp, attentive commentary that disabled people are giving on twitter, blogs, and podcasts is some of the best design criticism currently being produced, anywhere. I think I was channeling the sass of my disabled friends with that comment!

Your book looks at how American values of individualism, rights, and capitalism shape the material environment, that each thing reflects our values from a certain time. What are some recent ‘things’ from the last few years you think are good examples of disability culture & design in the 21st Century?

Bess Williamson: As I mentioned, I started this project with researching a product that was not known its disability origins, the Cuisinart. I see the Cuisinart as a very 20th century design example in that it reflects designers being aware of disability but unable or unwilling to talk about it clearly. As a total contrast, I love the work of Sky Cubacub and Rebirth Garments, a local Chicago company that makes super-stylish, fun, all-gender, all-shapes and sizes clothing. It’s also a community of artists, models, and dancers, and they have done some experimental stuff like a dance mix with audio description of the dancing mixed into the tracks. It goes so far beyond any notion of universal design and also aligns disability aesthetics with other challenges to fast fashion like limited sizes and gender binaries.

In a more mainstream context, I look at the XBox One controller that was developed with disabled gamers, for disabled gamers, as a leading example for a large company. They have been pretty strong in advertising, keeping the focus on the players and what they get out of the product rather than an “inspirational” narrative. That said, I don’t know a lot about gaming so I’d love to hear more from people other than the developers how it works and what could use improving.

Finally – a big area that is developing, but needs more work, is the maker space scene. There are definitely disabled creative folks looking for opportunities to develop ideas, to make things, or to collaborate on projects, and often these spaces are not accessible. The software isn’t accessible. The hardware isn’t accessible. I’d love to see maker spaces collaborate more with disabled designers — there is strength in the Bay Area on this, with legendary makers like Liz Henry and Josh Miele, but my sense is that overall the tech industry are not talking to the leading disabled creatives out there, and there is a big missed opportunity there.

Access in public spaces is tied to the way disabled people are viewed and treated throughout history. What do you imagine access will look like 50 years from now? What are you hopeful about?

Bess Williamson: In 50 years the ADA will be 80 years old, but I don’t think it will ever stop needing constant vigilance over how things are implemented and maintained. I think there is a strong role for legal measures, and I am hopeful that the next generation of climate change responses will incorporate planning for accessibility and multiple ways to value people’s participation in society. I’m writing this trying to emphasize the positive here, because there are also some serious threats to inclusion and independence such as Medicaid cuts and the healthcare crisis in general.

I also think that we are in a moment of tremendous change in defining what it is to be disabled and what that means from a design perspective. The increased awareness of autism, especially coming from autistic people themselves, is a challenge to design approaches that see disability access as a list of dimensions for ramps and doorways. Because autistic and otherwise neurodiverse body-minds have a wider range of physical and social expressions that can often overlap or conflict with each other, there’s no one design approach to inclusion. Sensory issues like sound, light, and texture are barely addressed in ADA standards, and addressing them may not be compatible with “universal design” or any single solution to the goal of access. These observations will bring new design responses, and a real rethinking of how space works socially and individually. I don’t quite know what that will look like but I think it will take us beyond standard practices and that will be a very good thing.

Is there anything else you’d like to share with me?

Bess Williamson: Just that DVP is a remarkable work of design in itself. This project and this online community are a model for shared production of information. I’m happy to be a part of it.


Photo of Bess Williamson, a white woman with brown hair and glasses, standing in front of a window and a rainbow thread artwork by Gabriel Dawe.
Photo of Bess Williamson, a white woman with brown hair and glasses, standing in front of a window and a rainbow thread artwork by Gabriel Dawe.

I am a historian of design and material culture with a particular interest in social and political concerns in design, including environmental, labor, justice, and rights issues as they shape and are shaped by spaces and things.

I am Associate Professor of Art History, Theory, and Criticism at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, where I teach a range of design history courses, from introductory surveys of modern design history to graduate seminars on issues in design and politics, material culture/”thing” theories, and disability studies in art/design. I am currently the Graduate Program Director in the Art History department, and my classes contribute to a Design History track within our MA in Modern/Contemporary Art History.


Twitter: @BessWWW

Instagram: @Accessible.Design


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