May 15, 2019

both too large and not large enough

Bess Williamson’s new book, Accessible America: A History of Disability and Design, is a beautifully concise and integrative text for any reader who wants to know both the origin stories of everyday technologies and some key theoretical tools for interpreting and evaluating “assistive” design work. But it’s this lucid tackling of the biggest questions head-on and upfront that I’m thinking about today:

In this book I define access in a very literal sense: in terms of physical usability of architecture, infrastructure, and products by disabled people. As a result, the book joins the many histories of disability that focus on physical disability with little attention to sensory, cognitive, and intellectual disability. This bias partly reflects the emphasis of the disability rights movement itself, many prominent leaders of which were people with physical disabilities for whom “accessible” meant “wheelchair-accessible.” It also reflects the logic of an accessible design, in which the very visibility and materiality of basic components such as curb cuts and ramps made useful rallying points for change.

These material solutions could also undercut the complexity of disability inclusion by creating the perception that access was “done” when ramps were built. The shortfalls of accessible design as addressed by government and the private sector remind us of the ways technological discourse can make promises “both too large and not large enough,” to borrow from Matt Ratto and Robert Ree’s writing on humanitarian applications for digital technologies. Promises of an accessible world are too large when they glorify small changes, viewing a ramp or a limb as an activator of change alone. And yet, they are also not large enough when they overlook the complexities of technological change, including the populations left out, the compromises of collaboration, and the outside manipulation of economic, social, and political pressures.

So much said in so few words! I strongly recommend this book to you. Lisa Brawley and I used Aimi Hamraie’s related text in a course at Vassar on urban design and disability this past spring; Williamson’s book would be equal to the task. And I’d specifically recommend Williamson’s last chapter, called “Beyond Ramps: Cripping Design” for folks teaching survey-style courses on the politics of design and in need of a fast tour through contemporary cultural forms.