Berkeley Talks transcript: Bess Williamson on the history of disability and design

Listen to Berkeley Talks episode #110: "Bess Williamson on the history of disability and design."

Björn Hartmann: Welcome everyone to Design Conversations at the Jacobs Institute for Design Innovation at UC Berkeley. My name is Björn Hartmann and I am the faculty director here at the Institute. For the spring semester, we will continue our theme, For Whom? By Whom? Designs for Belonging, where we consider accessibility, inclusion and justice as they pertain to today’s debates on design and technology.

This series aims to ask, how can today’s designers work to promote alternative methodologies and ways of life? We investigate designs, historical and contemporary exclusions and invite distinguished speakers to share how their work considers a future of belonging. I’d like to remind you that captioning is available for this talk and can be turned on in your interface. This presentation is being recorded and it will be available with captioning in the upcoming week. For any other access requests, please send us an email to laurenardis@berkeley.edu. Lauren, if you could put your email into the chat as well.

Today we’re excited to welcome our first speaker for the spring semester, Dr. Bess Williamson, from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Before we begin, I’d like to remind you that there will be a Q&A with Bess immediately following the talk. We encourage you to ask questions as they come up throughout the discussion and throughout the talk using the Q&A function. You can also upvote questions other attendees have asked there and submit your questions at any time during the talk. Professor Eric Paulos and I will trade off sharing your questions with Bess following the talk.

Dr. Bess Williamson is a historian of design and material culture and associate professor of art history theory and criticism at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. She leads courses on modern design history, design and politics, material culture and disability studies. Bess’s work focuses on social and political concerns and design ranging from environment questions and labor, to justice and disability. She has published numerous texts on design’s history in relation to disability movements and she is the author of the recently published book, Accessible America: A History of Disability and Design.

In that book, Bess explores the history of design and its response to disability rights beginning in 1945 to the present day. The book examines the concept of access and its emergence in design thinking of the time and the everyday impact design has on the lives of people with disabilities. Accessible America has received praise from the design world and disability’s justice advocates alike. One review called it, "An engaging history of accessible design that points the way to design as a tool for empowerment, critique, and self-expression that celebrates the diversity of human bodies.”

Please join me in welcoming Dr. Bess Williamson.

Bess Williamson: Thanks so much Björn, and thank you all out there in Zoomland who are joining us today. Let me turn my screen on. So, thank you so much. So, get my… Sorry, my Zoom toolbar just moved so I got a little confused, but I just want to share also some notes, or an outline of my talk in the chat here for anyone’s reference who prefers to follow along by text.

Thank you, again, joining you here on your screen. I’m a white, middle-aged woman with pink glasses sitting in a bedroom with a mirror and paintings behind me. And on the screen here, a sepia-toned long exposure action shot of an empty wheelchair swooshing across the page with my title today, "Beyond Inclusion: Disability in Life and Design.”

I spend a lot of time thinking about access and inclusion in the design world. I’m recognizing that disability is not out there, but in here which is to say, in a pandemic especially we’re all aware that our bodies are vulnerable and illness and health are social and political. This is not a story of an anonymous population that’s being served by design, but instead, an interchange and participation through which design has changed over the last half century or so.

I ask us to proceed assuming a variety of lived experiences of disability in the virtual room that we’re in together. Some may identify as disabled with life histories of illness or born difference, whether it’s cognitive, sensory, mental or physical. Others may have relational connections to disability, such as family members and loved ones. Disability is among the most common human experiences, although its meaning is highly variable in social and political circumstances.

So I’ll start the talk by thinking a little bit about where we are, what are we doing together here for this hour that we have together? Where we are is shaped by this global situation that we’re in and as a result, the medium we’re in destabilizes some of the expectations we might have had around academic performance and behavior, which is just to say, this talk looks a lot different than it might have about exactly a year ago or before then, right? We’re on Zoom, we’re not in person. I haven’t traveled to see you, much as I would prefer to be in Berkeley than in Chicago at this particular moment. Nonetheless, academics, disabled people have often requested these forms of interaction, of virtual participation, whether it’s in school or work for many years and have often been denied. So, we are in effect living an accessible experience that we might not have been able to very recently.

And I posted here to think of where we are, the logos of some of the common tools of video conferencing that I am using these days, whether it’s Zoom, Google Meet, Skype, FaceTime, Microsoft, even new platforms like Twitch and Discord that were originally developed for gamers. These are, in some ways, all the same, they sometimes feel kind of interchangeable, but they’re also a little bit different. We’re in unresolved situations of expectation when it comes to access around these tools. They have varied social meanings, some we associate more with personal, others with public, right? It’s much different to give a talk on Zoom rather than suggest that I’m going to talk to you by FaceTime, right?

But from a standpoint of access, in particular, there are subtle but very important differences in the operations, the experiences of these tools. Almost all of them have changed in some way over the last year in terms of their capabilities of captioning, the different platforms that they’re available on or different devices that they work on. For us here in this talk, we have CART, communication access real-time transcription, which is a professionally licensed typist who is contributing in real time. So if you turn your captioning on, you’ll see that live transcription happening.

This is considered the standard of communication access, which is to say a legal standard, but if you turn it on or if you are habitually using them, you’ll know that these tools have their own quirks and differences. The differences even in the typist even can be quite significant.

There are some of you in the audience probably who have even using captioning more often during this time of remote communication. If so, you probably started to develop your own preferences around captioning. For those who may be ASL speakers, you may have some settings in which it’s worth the bureaucratic hurdle of requesting and confirming that interpretation as opposed to captioning. Captioning too requires a lot of work, of finding out when it’s going to be available, finding out whether it’s going to be good or not, AI automatically generated as opposed to human operated, which tends to reduce a lot of the errors involved.

If you’re not familiar with these tools, I encourage you to explore them. How would following along by text, whether through the document that I posted or through captioning, change your experience of this talk? Would you notice a shift in timing? The need for slower pace and pauses between points where the captioning catches up? Does it help to clarify certain aspects of public speaking or make them more difficult?

Some of you I want to acknowledge might be using other tools as well. You can use the chat as a form of cross talk during my talk, which is a format that never existed in the formal kind of silent hush of an academic talk. Some may be using your own tools of captioning or of transcription, these are some of the tools, Ava, Otter and Web Captioner which allow for digital transcription. These are the kind of tools that are on the user end, so they don’t become a visible form of the talk. So I like to sort of highlight that they may be in the room as well.

Beyond these technological additions to our video captioning format, we can also make access for ourselves and for others. So I’ll follow some of the conventions of disability culture when it comes to accessibility in this talk. You’ll hear me image describe, which is to say briefly describe images that are on the screen, recognizing that we may not all be seeing the same thing and that the art and design world in particular tends to rely on visual experience as a primary form of communication that often doesn’t get translated.

We can use text as well as spoken and visual language. So I encourage you to use the chat, use the Q&A. You can follow along and answer and speak to me further on Twitter on my username @besswww. In online talks like this, we also have the advantage of opening ourselves for other access needs we may have. We have the advantage of listening to these talks in our own spaces. So I invite you to make your own access to my talk, if that means sitting, standing, lying down while listening, doing something else while you’re listening. Realizing perhaps that this is not a good time for you to be listening to this talk and so turning it off is another form perhaps of access for you. You may also be watching this as a recording later in the future of my talk, which means you can adjust the sound, the speed, or any other settings that work for you.

So, having given that sense of where we are now, I’ll move to my talk, which does take place mostly in the past. I’ll describe some guiding themes in the last 50 to 75 years of making access, so think about access as a particular push, new concept in the design world that emerged approximately at the end of World War II, which is to say, making access for disabled people as a public concern, rather than a private burden or responsibility. It’s not as if disability was invented in the mid-20th century, but it changed public meaning, and particularly meaning for designers.

My references here will mostly be to the U.S. and to the physical world of products, devices, and architecture, but I invite you to consider how these issues play out in your own practices and talk to me and others about them.

I start with the core argument, assertion that design is built around norms. Whether from Da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man, which interpreted renaissance… Sorry, interpreted ancient texts about architecture in relationship to the body to produce this image of the universal man as an architectural object, as something that related to the built world around it. It creates a kind of human side to architecture, but it also raises the question of, what is the difference between a norm and an ideal? If we do not fit into this geometry as proposed, we know that we’re abnormal, we’re a misfit to design as it becomes increasingly standardized in the modern periods.

Many architects, to skip further, to skip forward significantly to the 20th century, many architects in high form of modernism use the body as a basis of measurement as well. Particularly in seeking out a standard approach to human needs and considering space. So, Le Corbusier, the French modernist architect, set out the idea of the Modulor, a proposal for a new measurement system that would create a third path to the imperial versus metric conflict.

But he used what he imagined as a typical, which is to say male, body as the building block that would be used for standardized housing and urban space. But even in this image, this dramatic figure with its arm over his head outline, with its center cut out, the naval center being the center of space, itself suggests a kind of lyrical interpretation of the body rather than some rationalized standard. And indeed, Le Corbusier apparently based the Modulor dimensions on a tall man who he admired in his office. So even in making the norm, he’s calling on the ideal.

In this time period, in sort of the mid-20th century when our worlds are increasingly becoming industrialized and there’s this search for the standard, disabled people are usually not only not recognized as part of the human world, but forced to the margins of design, required to adapt, or to be ushered away and institutionalized or eliminated from the landscape. They really just don’t appear. So it’s difficult to find artifacts of disability in this mid-20th century period.

Instead, disabled people come from the margins in, sort of pressure design, make their appearance known in a way that creates a misfit between the architectural world as built and the reality of people’s lives. In the U.S., legal measures were a primary way of making this change. As early as the 1960s, local code started to require access. And these remain very bare bones and scattered, but by the 1970s, they gained more familiarity and began to be codified into their own norms and standards.

So, in manuals like this one, a very boring-seeming perhaps, sort of brown cover of a book. And The Illustrated Handbook of the Handicapped Section of the North Carolina State Building Code. Hardly an avant garde design artifact. But it’s actually surprisingly interpretive. It was written, it was illustrated by an architect named Ronald Mace, who himself was disabled. He had polio as a child and used a wheelchair. And he is representing disability in this official way. He is basically interpreting very simplified code writing that doesn’t include a lot of illustrations, of what does disability actually look like? What does it mean to follow these initial standards which were things like the gradient of ramps, the width of doorways and so on?

So, even the cover tells us a little bit about this idea of placing an angled surface on top of an existing step, that accessibility as it came into the design world was often a question of renovating, of remaking the existing world rather than starting from nothing. And the book includes, surprisingly interpretive elements. So, we have this cover, which includes the international symbol of access, a very standardized representation, yet the inner cover, so when you turn the page, you see this whooshing wheelchair that I opened my talk with.

The intercut between architectural drawings of curves, of ramps and so on. Mace includes these more interpretive black and white stop-motion images that seem to suggest a presence for disabled people in the design world. So alongside definitions of disabled people through the space that they take up in the world, he includes images of these people on the move. In this case, a woman, Mace’s wife actually walking with arm crutches. In other images of people being pulled up, curbs and steps in wheelchairs, an artistic interpretation in a sense, but one that inserts the disabled person into architecture where they had not been planned for and are not imagined to exist.

These insertions seem in themselves to be a kind of rebuke of standards that don’t include the disabled body. And they’re a confrontation with the slow pace of code-driven design change. Another key area and key story of that confrontation is local to the Jacobs Institute in Berkeley. Berkeley, as we know, was a site of tremendous political upheaval in the 1960s and 1970s and that includes a story of disability rights. And of a disabled population who became actively engaged in redesigning the environment they lived in.

So, on this cover of a publication by the Center for Independent Living, a groundbreaking, community-driven social service agency that’s still in Berkeley, we see these figures. Two wheelchair users being pushed up a curb with their two attendants and on the very left of the image, a man holding a white cane. So, a blind participant in this group as well.

This is a group of young people who, through the Center for Independent Living charted out their city, made recommendations to the city about where curbs should go, designed the curbs themselves, pushed back, I think, significantly against the notion that access will be made for them by another authority, which is to say, architects, medical professionals, educators, other government figures.

In this case, this work that they put forward of being in the city and agitating for their own rights was significant in a number of ways. First of all, from a design history standpoint, it led to the creation of the first continuous wheelchair accessible street scape in the world. That is to say, not curbs within a hospital campus, or even a university campus, not required additions to one federal building or courthouse, but widespread access that cut across different parts of the city. In this case, for those of you who know Berkeley, a couple of routes, one that cut from the university campus, down Telegraph Avenue to the BART station a mile south of it. And a stretch of downtown Berkeley.

So connecting in a lot of ways, home, school, transit, as a part of this vision of an independent life. Significantly also, this group represented a community-driven approach to design in which disabled people defined their own priorities, not relying on someone else’s definition of what success would be or what access would be.

So, to get into this in a little bit of detail, the city of Berkeley built five blocks of wheelchair access in 1970, and this is a longer story that comes out a broader activist landscape, but the important thing to note is just for the first time, there are 10 curb cuts the first five blocks of Telegraph. So, this is a dense neighborhood of coffee shops and bookstores and hangouts. It’s this hip spot of the counter culture 1970s, also key spot for protests of the period. And the city renovates i t’in 1970 and includes these curb cuts.

But the curb cut doesn’t look quite like… Well, it’s really called a curb ramp at the time, because it’s not really a cut as we know it today, but instead, the quarter circle turn of the curb is just kind of flattened out, smooshed into the crosswalk, so it goes directly, the pathway angles directly into the crosswalk. And while the wheelchair-using population of Berkeley definitely took note and had asked for these ramps, they also noted a design problem with them, which is that by flattening out in the curb, they eliminated any kind of sensed edge of the curb for blind pedestrians.

So we’ll think back to that image of a team of wheelchair users and a blind person surveying the landscape. By noticing this design problem, they then came back with their own design plan which was a curb cut outside of the crosswalk, a much sharper one, so here’s a fuzzy black and white image that shows this second generation of curb cuts in which this sharp curb is actually a little bit to the sides of the crosswalk. This represented, for this population, a compromise that would all for cross-disability access, right? Not just a crosswalk for a wheelchair user, but one for a variety of participants. And now we have more commonly today we see a compromise here with a bumpy pad or surface at the curb which itself creates its own access problems.

Significantly as well, their redesign also came with a demand to the city to ask them for advice. And so, built into the city process as early as the 1970s was a required Charette process in which the disabled community had to participate in any major new construction elements of Berkeley.

That said, this story itself reveals to us that smoothing out the concrete isn’t always smooth. It takes friction, it takes a pushback between community and the builders or the local authorities. And this is very much the feeling of access is one, it often comes with conflict, right? It often comes with compromise. Designers have often not been open to the idea of access, likewise cities and businesses have often pushed back. And that’s very much the theme of the late 20th century and even today, we hear of, when is access too much? Or is this a special interest that’s demanding things from government? And so on.

But at the same time, there is a kind of emergence in this same time period. Particularly in the area of product design toward a greater interest and curiosity about disability. And one that informs new approaches that have nothing to do that history of legal requirements. The Cuisinart food processor is perhaps a surprising object to see on the screen in relationship to this talk, not something that we particularly associate with disability in any particular way.

But this product’s clean white lines, the oversized plastic handle, the big type, and then in particular, its handles are these low, flat paddles. Very broad, just two simple buttons and we know we can think of this in contrast to a blender with 1,000 teeny, tiny buttons on it, right? It was informed by work that the designer, who was a professor at the Rhode Island School of Design, had done. He had done some research on manual impairment and visual impairment. He absorbed those lessons into this design, not something that the company asked him to do. It was part of an overall improvement of this new, high-performance food processor.

And in this bit from Mark Harrison’s papers, he spells out what the benefits of this are on this ad for fresh and frozen fluffs, like some kind of fruity dessert that you can make in your Cuisinart. But he hand writes in here some of the benefits. So, large handle, large paddle-like controls, gross motion versus fine finger acuity, letters on dark field for maximum contrast, lettering on controls at angle of view when using products. So he spells it out in notes, but in this artifact, this advertisement with his notes on them, we see the contract, the way that the Cuisinart was advertised, which is as a confection, a beautiful, fun, for the adventurous chef of the 1980s, not something that’s presented as having any relationship to disability.So, suggesting a kind of seamlessness, that disability can be incorporated as a part of design change, not necessarily out of the kind of conflict that produced street-level access.

Perhaps better known than the Cuisinart story is the story of OXO Good Grips, but a similar storyline where two married designers, Betsy and Sam Farber, began to experiment with handles. Betsy had come up with a lot of homemade changes and she had arthritis and had a hard time using standard doorknobs, then standard kitchen tools, and so they developed this extra oversized rubber grip that produced a line of kitchen tools that’s still in production, OXO Good Grips along with other tools that the company produces. But that incorporated an awareness of physical limitation into this product that’s seamlessly functional, right? Elegant, has a name, OXO, that can be read upside down and backwards. It has this rubber handle that seems to call out to you to know how to grip it, that it will be secure under your hands.

And again, the early advertisements for OXO Good Grips present a similar kind of fun stylish kitchen image, so the Cuisinart, right? But there’s maybe a little bit of a subtle attention to the hand here, right? Photographs of both male, or masculine and feminine hands, even a hand with a bandaid that maybe suggests some sort of injury. And tag lines like, "Gadgets you can grip,” are tools you can use, that suggest the problem of usability, even if they don’t specifically call out to the idea of arthritis or manual impairment. Still, in the fine text here is the sentence, "A universal design makes Good Grips easy for everyone to hold onto.”

So it’s using a new term that emerged in the 1980s and the 1990s of the idea of universal design. The notion of a design that could address both disabled and non-disabled audiences in one seamless form. So, whether it’s in a product like this that works for a variety of hands or if we think architecturally of incorporating ramps into the front entrance of buildings or eliminating steps overall so that you don’t have this sense of two separate entrances, right? Or two separate designs.

This concept of universal design in fact was coined by that same architect, Ron Mace, who I mentioned, produced the illustrated forms of the early codes around accessibility. And here’s another image where Mace, along with some of his collaborators, picture what universal design looks like. That it looks like a lever handle that is easier to open if you’re carrying a bunch of packages, right? It looks like a closet installation in which the pieces can easily be rearranged for a child as they grow up or for people of different heights or for wheelchair users as well as standing users and so on. So they produce a kind of language of multiple use, of diverse bodies, older and younger, male and female, as well as disabled and non-disabled.

And the notion of universal design does a lot to shift the conversation around disability, but we can also think of it as very much within the politics of disability rights, the conflicts that came up, the tensions between community and government. The universal design is sort of gaining traction just at the same time as the Americans with Disabilities Act, the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1990 is passed, which by today’s political standards is a shockingly bipartisan effort, but didn’t go through without any resistance. And in particular, that the activist message, the compromise message around this act was often around the notion of normalcy, of joining the mainstream.

So ADAPT, the major disability rights organization, puts out a bumper sticker at the time of the passage of the ADA that says, "To boldly go where everyone else has gone before.” A sort of play on the Star Trek tagline, but its argument itself is somewhat of a normalizing argument. This is not a radical message, but a message of going where everyone else already is. So if we consider this from a design standpoint, that it fits into the universal design notion of inclusion, of seamless inclusion, without necessarily directly addressing what is at the root of a misfit when it comes to design.

These conflicts or these sort of tensions between what I might call an accessible approach as opposed to a normalizing approach still echo with us. Just a couple of years ago, the top architectural design firm, Steven Holl Associates, unveiled a 10-year $40 million public library project in Queens, New York. This interesting, striking concrete block with these cut-out windows in it. And it was hailed as this great contribution to new-civic architecture, until a few weeks after it had been opened, a few articles started to point out that there were some access shortfalls in this.

Well, shortfalls perhaps is one word for it, but this building, those cut-out windows are very much organized around a stair interior. So those cut-out windows fall alongside a staircase that goes into a section of books, the fiction section, where there is no other form of access to these shelves. So, the architects had this idea of wandering up the steps, browsing in the fiction shelves, and legally, this is a ADA-compliant space, because there are other ways to get these books, you can order them at the desk, but perhaps in some ways it charts the difference between 2010 when the project was originally planned and 2020 when it was finally opened, or sorry, I think it was 2019 when it was finally opened, which is that, yes, it creates a kind of access, but might say it doesn’t reflect a culture of openness to various possibilities or a full form in which the design truly reflects a notion of inclusion, right? Instead it reflects a notion of compliance with the bare minimum of the law.

The library brought up, I think, to many, what has happened since the passage of the ADA in 1990? What great growth in architecture has occurred since then? There’s so few really great buildings or great forms of design that we can point to as reflective of attention to disability. Perhaps the best ones we can look at in a universal design vein are ones in which disability is kind of seamlessly hidden, right? Not particularly pointed to or celebrated.

The rare examples are those that come out of disability-focused communities, like the Ed Roberts campus in Berkeley, the newer home to the Center for Independent Living that used to be in a former Alfa Romeo dealership at the end of Telegraph Avenue that I think is condos now, is now in this bold, beautiful, communal building that puts together multiple disability-related organizations focused and seated directly above the BART station at Ashley Avenue in Berkeley.

This building is such a rare one in terms of having a central focus and highly visible feature that has to do with disability. It’s bright red, large scale ramp visible through the glass windows from outside, the ramp is not only there and present, kind of calling back to various architectural greats like the Guggenheim Museum, but it’s very generous. It accommodates multiple users, you can pass people in your wheelchair, you’re not the only person there. It creates this gathering space in the center, as do other features in the building that celebrate access, whether it’s the natural light skylights, a water feature that creates sound, various air filtration systems to reduce the use of chemicals for sensitive populations, right? This becomes a kind of flagship enterprise, but it’s worth asking why that level of access is virtually only known of in a building that is focused on the disability community, as opposed to being understood as a design goal for general application.

And I would put the Ed Roberts campus into a sort of newer generation of design and architecture that focus on disability, not as a functional problem, but as a cultural issue, a question of community. In a very different realm, but one that I think shows a sort of expressiveness of a new form of design. I look at the line of Rebirth Garments, a Chicago-based fashion company that is highly flexible, customizable, brightly colorful clothing for all genders, all sizes, for all body shapes and requirements. And partly it’s using its materials, right? Stretchy fabrics, alterable patterns to be customizable within the realm, the possibilities of a Etsy level of small business.

This suggests a, to me, move away from the idea of a universal, but instead towards a highly distinctive, everyone with their own very specific and very visible context. Rebirth is also very responsive to current issues, right? Producing this summer a face mask that has every possible functional variation available, not only a window possibility for lip reading, but also every different strap combination possible from snaps to ear loops, to elastic loops, and over the head straps, reflecting the varied needs of their population as well as the concerns of, for example, those who might be putting masks on others.

They produced, as part of this summer project, a special edition protestor mask that was funded by the customized mask and was distributed through a trans youth center in the south side of Chicago, so connecting also to current issues of the pandemic and protest around racial justice.

These varied examples, I think, bring us to the present, but hark back to the same core questions of where we are, what is the ground, the existing built environment that we operate on? Whether it has to do with digital platforms, or materials, or the built buildings that we saw people responding to earlier. What kinds of access can be made within them? As truly a creative question, as well as a community-based question. And then ultimately asking why, what are the ideas of disability that are driving us? What kind of inclusive community are we looking for? One that is conscious and talking about disability or one that is sort of seamlessly addressing the minimums of laws and standards?

So, this brings me to the end of my talk and I’m eager to read your questions. I’ll just leave on the screen, this is like my recommended readings, for more thoughts on this from two books that came before mine, Aimi Hamraie’s Building Access, and Elizabeth Guffey’s Designing Disability that both address similar stories of the built environment, activism and technological change. And then three more recent books, Sara Hendren’s What Can a Body Do?, which is a really great book I think, especially for those of you who are in design practice. That is written from a designer’s perspective and addressing these issues in practice. Jaipreet Virdi’s Hearing Happiness, which addresses these issues in relationship to the history of hearing aids and hearing-related treatments that I think sort of brings us into the question of personal adornment very deeply. And then Georgina Kleege’s book, . I wanted to include partly because Georgina is a Berkeley professor, but also she talks very particularly about the way that vision interacts with our worlds of creativity of art and design in a way that also fills an important gap in the literature.

So, I’ll shift now and happy to hear of your questions and hear from you. Thanks.

Björn Hartmann: Thank you so much, Bess. We will begin our Q&A now. So if you haven’t already posted a question that’s on your mind, please do so now in the Q&A functionality so others can see it and upvote it as well. Eric and I will then take turns and while you think about that question and start typing it, let me maybe start with one question.

Bess, I wonder if you could talk about the durability of advances in access, maybe outside of the law. I’m just thinking about the lifetime of the built environment means once access has been built, it stays for decades. In products, that Cuisinart processor is still being sold and the OXO Good Grips are also still being sold. Maybe it’s easier to keep molds around once you’ve started that tooling, but there also seems to be this counter weighting force of fashion and trends which can make advances go away. And I’m specifically thinking about, now the world of software where we just see fundamental changes in the technology platforms at a much faster pace and every time it seems to bring the danger with it that battles that have been fought and won suddenly are forgotten and as you move from desktop software to mobile apps to VR apps, access that existed suddenly disappears. I’d like to hear your thoughts on that.

Bess Williamson: That’s such a great question and I think one that makes the leap from physical environment into digital environment really well, because I think we’re all familiar with that, the app that no longer works on your new operating system that you really needed, even if you were the only person who seemed to use it, or something like that, right? The framework in the science, technology, and society world that I have found really useful is thinking about maintenance as a concern in engineering and design, that there’s been such a push, I’m borrowing from Lee Vinsel’s work here, but there’s been such a push for innovation, the idea that newness is always better-ness in technology design. But the realities of our lives are often much more bound up in this flow timeframe of technologies, the houses that we just happen to live in, or that we grew up in, or that one cane that you really loved that the business went out of business, right?

So, we hear these stories so constantly across the spectrum, so thinking about it from a design standpoint is like, how are things designed for me or for longevity, for lasting? And I think it’s interesting how the law fits into that, because on the one hand, the law requires change to existing spaces and that has often been the hardest area of architectural assets, right? It’s much easier to design from the ground up with access than to renovate thousands of years of human construction.

But the law does slow things down to some extent in that sort of requiring the lasting value in architecture, and I think that’s one of the things that… Legal change is like the least exciting form of design change, but in fact it can have the greatest impact because it firmly lodges certain values as like, you cannot build this building unless it fits. And that becomes a standard that architects really absorb.

So, I’d say, yeah, so just to say I think that the slowness becomes an important value when it comes to these considerations and I think we can think about how different design worlds embrace that more than others or where it’s considered to be an important value, whereas others it’s like, well screw people who don’t have the right device to log into this website or whatever it is. I think that’s often especially strong in the digital design world.

Björn Hartmann: Right. Thank you. Eric, do you want to start us off with an audience question?

Eric Paulos: Great. Sure, yeah. Thank you. Great talk. I want to go to, actually one of our previous speakers, Bryce Johnson actually asked a question, and I know you had this in your talk about universal design and I think the question is, he asks, can you give us your thoughts on the evolution of universal design and where you think it needs to go? And where does universal design fall short? I mean, it has obviously some generalities that don’t always apply to the specifics at hand, but it can be valuable, I’m curious I think to hear your thoughts about that.

Bess Williamson: Universal design has such a fascinating history, and I should say, I’ve learned so much from Aimi Hamraie’s writing here because they are very deeply engaged in Mace’s original writing as well as other thinkers of his time. And I think it’s always crucial to think, I always think the invention of universal design was both a deep design philosophy and a kind of PR move, right?

Mace was very aware that everyone had been practicing an idea of universal design in the accessibility world, but they called it barrier-free architecture and that just didn’t sound interesting or exciting to the rest of their architectural world. So, universal design is a name that helps a broader population understand why we’re doing this, that this is not just about a small population, but about all users.

The problem with that is first of all, as the curb cut story in Berkeley shows, there is no design that’s truly universal, right? I mean, truly there are few things in the world that truly work for everyone. So, the problem I think in particular is when the universal solution is prioritized because of a concern that designing for a small population is inherently unimportant or infeasible, whether it has to do with industrial tooling or just cost, that there’s often this conversation like, "Well, why would we design for access? It’s only 10% of the population. So, it’s just infeasible.”

Universal designers had a response for that, but the challenge is when there are designs that truly are needed, but they’re only needed by a small population, then are they still justified? I think ultimately you have to have a kind of ethical compact beneath the argument for universal design, which is that universal design isn’t just because it’s most convenient for a broad population, right? But because it’s part of a broader conversation that challenges the idea that there is a norm or a majority in any population.

Sometimes universal design doesn’t look like OXO Good Grips. Sometimes it actually looks like your phone that has 1,000 different options and you figure out which option works for you. So I think there’s some evolving conversation about that, but I think it’s, yeah, important to think about how the language sometimes can be misleading perhaps and yeah, I’d say mainly it’s just that different contexts call for different design solutions. And if the primary commitment is to universality, it may be more problematic than if the primary commitment is to equity or contribution from a community.

Eric Paulos: Great. Yeah. Okay, thanks. And thanks Bryce for the question. I’ll hand it back to Björn now.

Björn Hartmann: Yeah. I have a question from an anonymous attendee that actually goes back to the conversation we had before about architecture versus technology. This is a question, how do you feel about technology and accessibility within the built environment? So, do you think technology, mobile apps, virtual eyes are an important complement to helping adapt to the built environment that wasn’t made with accessibility in mind? So, in your experience, what’s your take on using additional technology to navigate worlds with a disability when that world doesn’t have access built in?

Bess Williamson: Yeah, so what this makes me think of is Google Maps a few years ago bought an app that had been developed in disability communities to layer in accessibility information so that you can… Because the reality is, I mean, the reality is that the work of making one’s own access is significant, right? It’s like finding out, making sure, looking on the BART website to see which elevators are out of order. There’s a lot of maintenance work involved in navigating the built environment.

So I would say, those are some of the best examples of a cohesion of technology which can be rapidly updated. And the built environment, which is harder to update and doesn’t literally speak for itself, right? You can’t know until you get there whether the elevator’s broken. It’s interesting, I mean it raises, I think, some of the questions also of when do we… Do we design for the expectation of inclusion? So I think the challenge are things like when you put the burden on disabled users of a space or of a system always to have to find out for themselves, so always have to request for access. So for the example, this talk series where we put on the website, "CART captioning is available,” so you don’t have to email someone and ask them, "Is CART captioning? Is it good captioning? Or will it be on the recorded?” It’s just on there.

So, I think some of it… So I think, which is just to say, of course the technology is a great complement, rapidly updated information technology is a great complement to the built environment. But I think we’re also considering where is the burden of access? It is best when access is a responsibility of the institutions that are making access, rather than just putting it more heavily on the disabled user. So I think that’s my sense of it.

But there’s just such a flourishing, I think, of creative approaches that are coming out of the disability community for communicating about these things or with apps and with information about how alt text as a form of creative work. I mean there’s… So, yeah, I think there’s a lot of exciting stuff going on in the digital world in this area.

Björn Hartmann: Eric, should we maybe take one more question from the audience here?

Eric Paulos: Sure, great. Yeah. So we have a question from Michelle Scott. So obviously designers often package their ideas in a story-telling format in order to best communicate why we should design inclusively. Do you have advice on telling these kinds of stories or how to approach them that could be useful for designers in furthering inclusive designs?

Bess Williamson: That’s such a good question that puts me very much in that sort of 21st century design storytelling, communication kind of mode of thinking. I think one of the things I just think about is, if storytelling is key to making pitches for all kinds of design, then cultural competency is very important, because telling what’s off in other people’s stories can really get us into just bad, non-inclusive, non-just situation.

So I think about how so many technology companies tell this story of accessibility through the lens of tragedy or pity. Like, "Oh, we’re helping the disabled,” right? Rather than through, honestly, design standards which is to say great performance, exciting experience, the pleasure and joy that design brings us.

And so I think some of it is being sure that the stories that you tell are authentic, that they involve disabled people themselves, but that they also speak to the heart of any institution. I mean we’ve all been doing a lot of work in the last year to ask our institutions to be inclusive, to roll out our various systems of remote work in a humane way during a global crisis of all kinds of different crises that are happening.

And I think for me, the best storytelling has been, who are we? Are we dragging our feet to include our community members who like our caregivers, or our sick, or have gone through life tragedy? Or are we the best, most wonderful place to work, and therefore we respond to it? So I guess that’s sort of my storytelling approach is through the lens of our passions and what we really do and using other people’s stories with caution. Realizing how much design has been done to disabled people and often in a way that hasn’t incorporated their authentic experiences or desires. So I think that’s maybe, yeah, that’s what I would say. That’s a very provocative question.

Eric Paulos: Great. Yeah, no, thank you. And I know we’re sort of running out of time, I just want to say, thank you for the talk to and to people that haven’t had a chance, please get a hold of her book. I jumped right in chapter four it has a snazzy title, Berkeley, California, so that’s where I started. But yeah, thank you. I’m going to hand back to Björn.

Björn Hartmann: Yes. I’d like to thank you too, Bess, for spending your time with us today and to all of you for attending and for asking these engaging questions. If you’d like to listen back to this talk, it’ll be available on our website in a few days once we’ve had the time to add it and finalize the closed captioning.

So, thank you to everyone. Thanks and stay tuned for upcoming announcements for future Design Conversations talks.

Bess Williamson: Thanks so much.

Eric Paulos: Thank you.

Björn Hartmann: Thank you.

By Anne Brice

View all articles by Anne Brice

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