Editor’s note: This is the first in a series of posts by Lemelson Fellow Aimi Hamraie. At the time of writing, Hamraie was a PhD candidate in Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at Emory University. Their dissertation examined Universal Design and disability. Their blogs will discuss accessibility features at the Smithsonian, particularly the National Museum of American History. As of 2021, Hamraie is Associate Professor of Medicine, Health, & Society and American Studies at Vanderbilt University, director of the Critical Design Lab, author of Building Access: Universal Design and the Politics of Disability (University of Minnesota Press, 2017), and host of the Contra* podcast on disability, design justice, and the lifeworld
Universal Design is the idea that spaces and products should be intentionally designed to be accessible to as many people as possible. The idea grew out of disability access—the design or retrofit of buildings and technologies to be accessible to people with disabilities, such as wheelchair users, people with low vision, or people who are hard of hearing. Most of the time, features of the built environment that are accessible to people with disabilities are retrofits, meaning that they are added on after a design is already planned.
When a wheelchair ramp is added as an afterthought, often to the back of a building, it means that wheelchair users cannot enter in the same way as other people. Often, this means entering through an alley next to a garbage dumpster, or needing to call someone to turn on a wheelchair lift. This reinforces the notion that having a disability means that a person is disqualified from public life and community.
In the image to the left, a concrete ramp has been paved on top of brick stairs on the exterior of the building. The building was inaccessible to people using wheelchairs or other mobility devices with wheels. It was also inaccessible to anyone pushing a stroller or cart. These kinds of retrofits are often less desirable than better designs that take into account the effects of a design feature before the space, technology, or product is even built.
In contrast, this image shows the interior of the Blusson Spinal Cord Center in Vancouver, British Columbia. This ramp is an example of Universal Design because it is the central design feature of this building and accesses every floor in the building. It is flexible and can be used by anyone—not just wheelchair users—to get to the upper floors.
Accessibility at the Smithsonian Institution
Since 1968, federal disability access laws have required the accessibility of various spaces and technologies, including buildings, public spaces, information technology, and transportation systems. Federal buildings were the first structures required to be accessible. Because the Smithsonian Institution is federally funded, it began its efforts to make museums accessible as early as the mid-1970’s. As a result, Smithsonian sites have not only been retrofitted to be more accessible, but the Smithsonian itself has developed innovative accessibility strategies and policies, including design features that follow Universal Design.
As a Lemelson fellow, I had the opportunity to look at the Smithsonian’s institutional archives on accessibility as a case study for my dissertation project on Universal Design. I am interested in how museums in the Smithsonian system use Universal Design and accessibility to disseminate knowledge and educate the public. Because the group of people visiting any Smithsonian museum is incredibly broad, I was interested to learn more about how the museums took this range of people into account in designing exhibits. The features I discuss below are in addition to those offered by the museum, such as docent tours or wheelchairs, that are in compliance with accessibility laws but do not have to do with exhibit design.
America on the Move
America on the Move is a transportation exhibit at National Museum of American History with a number of Universal Design features. These features are significant because they are so seamlessly integrated into the design of the exhibit that you will not notice them unless you know what you are looking for. For this post, I am going to focus on mobility features—meaning how the space is designed for people with disabilities, particularly wheelchair users, to move through it.
The image to the left shows ramps descending into a long hallway, with various vehicles on either side. From the slope of the ramps and the rails on them, you may be able to tell that this is the kind of space that may have previously had stairs. The ramps serve as elevated platforms that give you access into seeing inside of the window of the house on the right and the trailer on the left. When you get to the bottom, you can read or hear information about these parts of the exhibits on the kiosk.
The kiosks and displays, you may notice, are about two to three feet from the ground. This puts them at eye level for people who are seated in wheelchairs, people of short stature, or children who may be using the exhibit. The screens are tilted up to make them easier to read from a range of heights. The kiosks are also interactive, providing information in both text and voice for museum visitors in different languages.
Some of the other ramps are so subtle that you may miss them if you are not paying attention. This image shows a ramp that approaches a Chicago transit system bus in the exhibit. The ramp is so slight that it just appears that the floor slopes slightly upward to meet the bus. On the left, you can see a handrail that shows that it is indeed a ramp. Also notice that there are no stairs in this area. The ramp is usable to everyone.
Right, you can see that when the ramp reaches the bus, there is a flat entrance into the bus. Someone in a wheelchair can easily enter the bus without needing an additional ramp.
Now you can see inside of the bus. Although this bus was probably not accessible at the time that it was used, people using wheelchairs or strollers can easily enter the space because the first few rows of seats on the right side have been removed. When I was visiting the exhibit, I even saw a few tourists with rolling luggage enter the bus! This shows what a little bit of spatial reconfiguration can do for accessibility. Putting these features directly into the exhibit encourages multiple ways of using the space by different people.
One last design feature worth mentioning is this small theater area. Facing the screen are two rows of seats. The first row has three seats, while the back row has five. The spaces in the first row that are open are places where people in wheelchairs can join the theater and have a view from the first row. Many theaters have similar spaces, but in back rows in places with less than optimal viewing access. In this theater space, though, accessibility is privileged in the design of the space. Of course, if no one sits in these spaces, you cannot even tell! This is all part of the seamless integration of Universal Design into the exhibit.