When buying a pair of shoes, a pen, or a new car—the expectation is for the product to do the job. But you also want it to look good: stylish, current, cool. Why wouldn’t the same be true of products—wheelchairs, hearing aids, and more—designed to aid those with disabilities?
This is one of the major questions explored in the new exhibition “Access+Ability,” on view at the Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum through September 3 of this year. The show, which features more than 70 works, from an aerodynamic racing wheelchair to a vibration-activated shirt that allows the deaf to experience sounds, covers the wide range of innovations occurring in accessible design. It reflects how designers creating products for those with disabilities are making them not just increasingly functional and practical, but stylish.
“Why not be able to change the color of your prosthetic leg to match your style, your taste, your outfit?” asks Cara McCarty, director of curatorial at Cooper Hewitt, who co-curated the exhibition with Rochelle Steiner, curator and professor of Critical Studies at the University of Southern California. “You can dress it up, dress it down.”
McCarty is referring to a set of prosthetic leg covers designed and manufactured by McCauley Wanner and Ryan Palibroda for ALLELES Design Studio, which come in a number of patterns and colors, allowing the user the kind of choice they would get if shopping for any other item of apparel.
“Just like people add tattoos to their limbs, life-enhancing products can be yours, you can add your identity to it,” says McCarty.
A similar development can be seen in the jeweled hearing aids designed by artist Elana Langer. On first glance, they appear as eye-catching earrings before a closer looks reveals the wearer actually inserts a portion of it into the ear.
Many of the works look like something you’d be as likely to come across at Macy’s as at a medical supplier. The show includes a pair of Nike-designed shoes, inspired by a boy with cerebral palsy who wrote to the sneaker manufacturer when he was 13 saying he wanted to be able to put on his shoes by himself. The result features a wraparound zipper system at the back of the heel that has no need for laces, making it far easier for someone with a movement disorder to use. But they also look really cool.
“Anybody could wear those shoes,” says McCarty. The bottom line, she adds, is “giving people choice.”
Continue onto the Smithsonian to read the complete article.