Design Conversations: Dr. Bess Williamson

We would like to say thank you to Dr. Bess Williamson for kicking-off our spring 2021 speaker series, Design Conversations. This spring, we are continuing the theme: For Whom? By Whom? Designs for Belonging, a series that investigates design’s exclusions, and invites guests to discuss the ways their work examines ideas around inclusivity.

Dr. Bess Williamson is a historian of design and material culture and an Associate Professor at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. She is the author of Accessible America: A History of Disability and Design (2019) and co-editor of Making Disability Modern: Design Histories (2020). Her work explores diverse histories and practices of design that extend expertise to users and communities, and challenge designers to address access and power in their work.

Below you’ll find a follow-up Q+A from Bess’s talk on February 19, 2021. The questions were pulled from the unanswered questions during the live Q+A. Some of the questions have been thematically combined. You can watch the full recorded conversation online now. Closed captioning is available, and all further access requests can be sent to

Audience Question: Hi Dr. Williamson! You’ve shared examples of accessible design from both the public and private sectors. Could you compare and contrast how government and business have adopted universal design (e.g. the speed at which change has happened, challenges, or successes)? What efforts are being made today/how can we bring out the notion of accessibility to spaces that have already been established and built?

Bess Williamson: In thinking about government and market-driven responses — which are intertwined in many ways — we can generally think about distinctions between design for “compliance” and design responses that are driven by disability culture and inclusion. The latter tend to be more long-lasting and complex responses rather than just to the basics of a regulation or industry guideline. But, I would not really say that these are more market-driven — just more of a reflection of who is involved and the mission of the designers and clients.

I shared an anecdote in my talk about a public project, the Hunts Point Library, that met ADA requirements but fell short in terms of cultural inclusion: its focus on stairs represents an architectural and aesthetic tradition that defines one way of moving through space as a “norm” and others as in need of “special accommodations” (in the case of that library, a single elevator serves the whole building). The same firm, Steven Holl Associates, also designed the Nelson-Atkins Museum in Kansas City, MO, which is notable for its lovely walking experience and multiple forms of access/mobility both inside and outside of the building. So, to me, this is a signal that the firm likely responded to different client demands, rather than a core commitment to access as a part of their practice. Now, the negative response they’ve had to the Hunts Point project will likely apply pressure to them and other large-scale public projects and perhaps raise the bar of expectation. So “market” may then become a motivator as clients (at least of high-visibility public projects) demand a more thorough approach to access.

Audience Question: How do you think the importance of “access in design” can be integrated into the larger populist narrative or conversation of/with “design”: and all of its undemocratic flaws: luxury, aesthetics, etc. as a narrative that can exploit designs feined politic… as a way [that] exists beyond the periphery?

Bess Williamson: If I take this question correctly, it is referring to current discourses of critique in design that understand “design” to be tied up in various power dynamics of status and authority, including design as a veneer added to everyday products/spaces to make them more high-status, exclusive, or culturally/economically relevant. These critiques come from several directions including experimental or “speculative” practices as well as populist approaches that are engaged in current politics around justice and inclusion.

In some ways, disability-responsive design is a form of critique in itself, as it challenges the idea of a neutral user-subject and the history of modernist norms and standards. However, it has also often been presented as a luxury — essentially, the extreme wealth that affords customized and responsive design, such as elite spas/sanatoria historically, and more recent examples such as Rem Koolhass’ Maison à Bourdeaux which was a bespoke house that was designed for a wheelchair user and his family. Further, accessible product design has often been tied to market values. One argument is that Universal Design is a route to more marketable products “for all.” Another is that beautiful, well-designed assistive/medical technologies are a resistance to the stigma of disability in themselves (think of glamorous canes or brightly-colored wheelchairs). So in that sense, accessible design is very much in keeping with the capitalist-consumer values of design in general.

I am also observing that a lack of access is increasingly incorporated into broader critiques of design, such as projects that seek greater participation as a form of “design justice.” More popularly, we can think of social justice conversations that include captions and alt-text into standard practices of online activism. This seems like a space where a lot of advocacy and education-by-example are happening, particularly during COVID and our increased remote activity. These seem, to me, as promising indicators that accessible design will be understood as part of larger struggles for equity in design.

Audience Question: I work in transportation safety — can you speak to the role of design in creating more just, accessible, livable, and safe communities for all modes/ages/abilities/bodies?

Bess Williamson: There are some very significant discussions going on in transportation about what “the future” of cars, buses, trains, etc looks like and whether it will replicate past models that tended to leave disabled people as an add-on or side issue rather than part of the core population that we define as “the public.” For some history, I describe in my book how battles over accessible public buses and subways were significant in shaping our current perceptions of access as “too expensive/inconvenient,” largely due to auto and transportation industry resistance to change (and a major site of disability protest in the 1980s was at the American Public Transit Association’s conventions). In the present, issues such as who self-driving cars actually benefit, vs. the harm they may cause, seem still to reflect an overall industry that still treats non-disabled people as the primary audience and disabled people as a secondary thought if at all.

Resources: Aimi Hamraie, “A Smart City is an Accessible City
Disability Visibility Project (podcast) on Transportation
The Untokening — mobility justice organization

Audience Question: Can you talk a bit about the idea that universal design is an extension of one-size-fits-all design? I’ve heard critiques about universal design not really serving specific needs because it is too vague

Can you give us your thoughts on the evolution of universal design and where you think it needs to go? Where does universal design fall short?

Bess Williamson: This is something a number of scholars of disability and design, including me, Aimi Hamraie, Elizabeth Guffey, and Sara Hendren have discussed. Universal Design can sometimes feel like it proposes a “one size” approach in which every design feature is supposed to be “for everyone” when this really does not suit all formats/products. I referred in my talk to the curb cut history that shows how disabled activists revised the design of curb cuts in Berkeley to address both wheelchair users and blind pedestrians — this kind of attention is necessary to address multiple disability populations.

Some points on Universal Design that I think are important to make are:

A: the name itself emerged from a historical shift toward understanding disabled people not as a “special” or “separate” population, but part of the human community and therefore necessary to a successful design. This principle can produce a range of outcomes, but if equitable involvement is not a core belief, the work will not truly be “universal design.” I think people often do not take into consideration the full Principles of Universal Design, which include “Tolerance for Error” and “Equitable Use” which may actually require something beyond the contained “one size” of a product/service.

B: Universal Design was developed largely within the context of architecture and educational planning, both of which design public services for larger populations. In a permanent installation such as a building, this may mean a fixed, single design. But in many contexts, it can look more like a variety of options.

An example I can think of here is from an exhibition about disability activism that was organized by the Longmore Institute within the main public space at the Ed Roberts Campus in Berkeley. The exhibition designers had some participatory ways to add a message or response to the show. They realized that there was no single tool that could accommodate speakers, writers, signers, and others in one interface, so they included multiple options including a whiteboard, a video camera, and a loudspeaker. Is this “Universal Design?” I think so — but it doesn’t erase difference or end up with a single tool for everyone, and it makes each choice distinct and conscious knowing not everyone will want or be able to use all the tools available. Here, Universal Design isn’t “for everyone” in that everyone uses the same tool, but because it is a design process that assumes a wide range of users and therefore expands the possibilities for many groups.

Audience Question: How do you feel about tech and accessibility within the built environment? Specifically, with the blind/visually impaired community? Do you think tech/mobility apps/virtual eyes are an important complement to helping adapt to the built environment that wasn’t made with accessibility in mind? In your experience, do people want to use tech to navigate their worlds with a disability?

Bess Williamson: There are some great developments in technologies that translate/interpret the built environment for blind people. Blind people are often highly knowledgeable and equipped with technologies, whether it’s Braille writers or the huge expansion of audio tools in the digital era. This is not my field of expertise but I recommend Georgina Kleege’s book More Than Meets The Eye for an important primer on conceptual issues around visuality in modern culture.

When it comes to digital technologies specifically, there are a lot of examples of the problems of “special” or “separate” design for disabled people because tools such as alt-text are not visible to the populations who do not use them and there is not as much designer knowledge about the best ways to use them. I recommend this talk by Chancey Fleet (technology educator at the New York Public Library’s Andrew Heiskell Braille and Talking Book Library) about how the “ghostwriting” of digital access tools and how they can create problems for blind users.

Audience Question: Designers often package their ideas in a storytelling format in order to best communicate “why” we should design inclusively. Do you have any advice for telling these kinds of stories?

Bess Williamson: I answered this during the session but I thought I’d reiterate what I said. As “storytelling” is a part of current practices in design, it’s crucial to recognize where designers lack cultural competence to tell others’ stories. Design is a tool of the powerful and has often appropriated or assumed truths about others’ experiences in service to work that does not actually benefit those populations. And design education often lacks diversity in population or content. So, if storytelling is a part of your practice, I would ask: what do you know about the stories of disabled (or other marginalized) populations? Are you reading/watching/supporting the stories of disabled people, told by disabled people? Are you compensating disabled people for the expertise they may contribute through focus groups, ethnographies, or other tests?

Some resources:

Disability Visibility Project podcast/website and Disability Visibility collection of disabled people’s writings
Liz Jackson, “Empathy Reifies Disability Stigmas” from IXDesign 2019 conference

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