Accessible America

A History of Disability and Design

304 pages

57 black and white illustrations

January, 2019

ISBN: 9781479894093



Add to Cart Available: 12/14/2018

Also available in



Part of the Crip series


Bess Williamson is Associate Professor of Art History, Theory and Criticism at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.

All books by Bess Williamson

A history of design that is often overlooked—until we need it
Have you ever hit the big blue button to activate automatic doors? Have you ever used an ergonomic kitchen tool? Have you ever used curb cuts to roll a stroller across an intersection? If you have, then you’ve benefited from accessible design—design for people with physical, sensory, and cognitive disabilities. These ubiquitous touchstones of modern life were once anything but. Disability advocates fought tirelessly to ensure that the needs of people with disabilities became a standard part of public design thinking. That fight took many forms worldwide, but in the United States it became a civil rights issue; activists used design to make an argument about the place of people with disabilities in public life.
In the aftermath of World War II, with injured veterans returning home and the polio epidemic reaching the Oval Office, the needs of people with disabilities came forcibly into the public eye as they never had before. The U.S. became the first country to enact federal accessibility laws, beginning with the Architectural Barriers Act in 1968 and continuing through the landmark Americans with Disabilities Act in 1990, bringing about a wholesale rethinking of our built environment. This progression wasn’t straightforward or easy. Early legislation and design efforts were often haphazard or poorly implemented, with decidedly mixed results. Political resistance to accommodating the needs of people with disabilities was strong; so, too, was resistance among architectural and industrial designers, for whom accessible design wasn’t “real” design.
Williamson provides an extraordinary look at everyday design, marrying accessibility with aesthetic, to provide an insight into a world in which we are all active participants, but often passive onlookers. Richly detailed, with stories of politics and innovation, Bess Williamson’s Accessible America takes us through this important history, showing how American ideas of individualism and rights came to shape the material world, often with unexpected consequences.


  • "This illuminating and thoughtful overview of the evolution of accessible design in the U.S. between the end of WWII and the late 1990s is a strong introduction to the topic...Williamson skillfully connects design concepts to changing social narratives; this work should reward readers interested in either topic."

    Publishers Weekly

  • "Williamson keenly emphasizes that the United States has led the world globally toward physical access and accessibility as acceptable and admirable natural and civil rights rather than annoying physical encumbrances that stand in the way...reading [this] can change lives."

    Library Journal

  • "Bess Williamson's engaging history of accessible design points the way to design as a tool for empowerment, critique, and self-expression that celebrates the diversity of human bodies. Disability is a culture, not a lack."

    —Ellen Lupton, Curator of Contemporary Design at The Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum

  • "Beautifully and engagingly written, Williamson's approach to the history of accessibility as a history of design is brilliant. Accessible America shows how disability advocates harnessed technological design in their quest for access and equality, paying particular attention to the connection between prosthetic devices and the 'universal' design that followed, illuminating both histories. Highly recommended."

    —Douglas C. Baynton, author of Defectives in the Land: Disability and Immigration in the Age of Eugenics

  • "Williamson reveals the hidden history of how the Disability Rights Movement's struggle for inclusion rebuilt the world. Reaching back to activist veterans returning from World War II, through the Architectural Barriers Act of 1968, to ergonomics, universal design, and the Americans with Disabilities Act, Williamson shows us the transformed America that gives us the tools and pathways we all use every day to make our lives work better, and that the emergence of inclusive design and the world it makes is a tool for justice."

    —Rosemarie Garland-Thomson, author of Extraordinary Bodies

  • "By unearthing, situating, and interpreting artifacts of accessible design—from World War II to the rise of the Independent Living Movement to the post-ADA era—Williamson's book offers a much-needed contribution to disability history as we know it while also reshaping it for the next generation of disability historians, designers, and activists."

    —David Serlin, author of Replaceable You: Engineering the Body in Postwar America