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Designing for Access

Many recent technological advancements seem more ominous than optimistic: Alexa eavesdropping on water cooler conversations at work, automation taking our jobs, autonomous vehicles crashing into taco trucks. Or they’re more frivolous than helpful (for example, automated dental floss dispensers). But “Access+Ability,” an exhibition opening Friday at the Cooper Hewitt design museum in Manhattan, fills one with real optimism: It highlights the beneficial ways design and technology are transforming the lives of people with different physical, cognitive and sensory abilities.

The show also reveals the challenge of bringing empathy to the marketplace: Most of the more than 70 products on display were initiated by someone who either has a disability or has a family member who does. Frustrated by the lack of solutions created by others, these people were motivated by their own experience and need.

“Many of these are consciousness-raising products,” the exhibition’s co-curator, Cara McCarty, said. “They put the magnifying glass up to something others might experience every day. We take moving around for granted, but if you find yourself on crutches one day, or you have a baby and then have to navigate getting into the subway with a stroller, you become aware.”

Maayan Ziv, a woman with muscular dystrophy, created a crowdsourcing app called AccessNow, which allows people to pin and rate places according to their accessibility (or lack thereof). BlindWays, an app designed by the Perkins School for the Blind, addresses the challenge of how to find a bus stop when you can’t see it. Amanda Savitzky created a cooking prep system to help her adult autistic brother make his own meals.