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MEGAN THOMPSON: Walei Sabry works for the New York City Mayor's Office for People with Disabilities. Sabry is losing his vision due to a progressive eye condition and began identifying as blind 13 years ago at the age of 19. He says back then, his disability meant he had difficulty using some technologies that everyone else could, like mobile phones.
WALEI SABRY: I was getting mobile phones that were specifically adapted. So I would have to get a super expensive phone and then get a super expensive software on top of that to make that phone give me access to maybe 20 percent of its features.
MEGAN THOMPSON: Then came the IPhone. Its designers built in features for those with a vision disability.
WALEI SABRY: And now, whatever I will touch on the screen, it will read out loud.
IPHONE VOICE: Walei Sabry, hello.
WALEI SABRY: Here was a phone that anyone could get. And I didn't have to pay extra for it. I paid the same price as everyone else and I had access to a lot more of the features than just making a call. And maybe sending a text message.
IPHONE VOICE: Walei is typing ...
CARA MCCARTY: I can't think of a more important area now-- for design activity than this area.
MEGAN THOMPSON: Cara McCarty is the head curator at the Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum in New York. She put together its current exhibit, "Access+Ability," which calls attention to the recent surge in design for people with disabilities. The exhibit has prototypes like this bodysuit with electric muscles to aid movement.
CARA MCCARTY: We see these now with people who've had strokes, who need to relearn how to walk.
MEGAN THOMPSON: And canes with features like light-up handles and weighted bases.
CARA MCCARTY: We're seeing experiments with self-righting canes, sort of like buoys in water that tip over and they right themselves up to balance.
MEGAN THOMPSON: McCarty says this increase in accessible design means that products we all use are being made to be more inclusive. And products specifically for people with disabilities are being made better.
CARA MCCARTY: This comparison is so powerful.
MEGAN THOMPSON: And, design is being used to change perceptions about people with disabilities, as well. For example: there's a campaign to update the International Symbol of Access from this depiction of a person in a wheelchair...
CARA MCCARTY: Sitting there, quietly, passively.
MEGAN THOMPSON: To this.
CARA MCCARTY: Just by inclining the torso a little bit, arms back, propelling the wheelchair gives this sense about get up and go, and just engage.
WALEI SABRY: Disability will affect everyone at one point or another in their lives whether it's as they age or if somebody breaks a leg -- accessibility is there if they need it.
MEGAN THOMPSON: In 2016, Walei Sabry was put in charge of making all of New York City's government web sites and digital tools accessible to everyone.
WALEI SABRY: Just different policies like what will our policy be for making videos accessible. What will our policies be for making the ensuring that plain language is used on our websites.
IPHONE VOICE: Instagram, Be My Eyes, Seeing AI.
MEGAN THOMPSON: He says, app designers have stepped up their game recently, too.
WALEI SABRY: Let's open a random page here.
MEGAN THOMPSON: Microsoft's app called Seeing AI Reads printed text to Sabry...
APP VOICE: Department of Housing....
MEGAN THOMPSON: And identifies objects in front of him.
APP VOICE: Woman with blonde hair looking happy.
MEGAN THOMPSON: Sabry says, in cases when he has to use a separate, specialized device, it draws attention he doesn't necessarily want.
WALEI SABRY: The conversation would be oh, let me see how different you are. I want to see how you do things differently. Those are the kinds of conversations that further exclusion, in my opinion. Because there's a difference between celebrating differences and you know pointing them out.
CARA MCCARTY: I love to talk about this voting booth.
MEGAN THOMPSON: Cara McCarty says this is a good example of inclusive design - a new voting machine created for Los Angeles County for the 2020 elections.
CARA MCCARTY: Today if someone has a disability, often they vote separately. Often they don't have the privacy because they verbalize how they want to vote, so other people can hear how they are voting. This has not only a privacy screen, it can be adjusted for someone who's standing. If you're in a wheelchair you can roll up to it. The ballot is electronic, we can change the font size if someone has difficulties-- with their vision.
MEGAN THOMPSON: The machine was designed by Ideo, a company known for including users in the design process.
CARA MCCARTY: And that has really created and resulted in a lotta products that are much more functional, often more aesthetically pleasing.
MEGAN THOMPSON: For example, Ideo consulted people with cerebral palsy. The designers found that touch screens work best for them - and, it turned out, touch screens worked best for most other voters, too. McCarty says that's typical. Several of the products in the Cooper Hewitt exhibit were originally intended for someone with a disability but ended up being useful for many.....like this smartphone app made by Mayaan Ziv, who has muscular dystrophy and found it difficult to find information about whether she could access buildings in her wheelchair.
CARA MCCARTY: And so one can put an address in it anywhere in the world,//Is it accessible? Are the restrooms accessible? Is the patio accessible? Just remember, if you are perhaps a parent pushing a stroller, the same needs apply to them.
MEGAN THOMPSON: In products used primarily by someone with a disability, like wheelchairs, McCarty says users are getting more choices and more features.
CARA MCCARTY: For so long wheelchairs were viewed as just a place to sit. Sort of one-size-fits-all.
MEGAN THOMPSON: Now, for example: there's this wheelchair.. Made specifically for people in the developing world, where streets are often unpaved.
CARA MCCARTY: So the wheelchairs are very durable. Note that it is three wheels as opposed to four. This is a much more stable configuration.
MEGAN THOMPSON: There are more options in fashion, too.
CARA MCCARTY: Some very simple changes.
MEGAN THOMPSON: There's a shirt that looks like one you could find in any department store. But it has magnets behind the buttons, making it easier to snap together for someone with limited dexterity.
CARA MCCARTY: And then one of my favorites here...
MEGAN THOMPSON: Again, it's not obvious these sneakers are different from any others. Nike designed them after being contacted by a 16-year-old with cerebral palsy.
CARA MCCARTY: And he wanted to be able to put on his own shoes. So they responded by creating these FlyEase shoes, where there's a rear entry. So the person can just put their foot in that way. It's got this large strap, Velcro zip around, and then just put them on. And by the way, anybody can wear these.
MEGAN THOMPSON: And assistive devices are getting new looks. These hearing aids are decorated with colorful rhinestones, making them look like earrings. And prosthetic limbs are getting a makeover, too
MAMA CAX: 'Cause so many people use accessories in outfits as a way to express themselves. And it shouldn't be any different for us, right?
MEGAN THOMPSON: Mama Cax is a New York-based fashion model. Her right leg was amputated when she was a diagnosed with bone cancer as a teenager. At first she covered her prosthetic with skin-colored foam to hide her disability. Then, she covered it with nothing at all.
MAMA CAX: And I didn't really like the look. It wasn't fashionable enough for me.
MEGAN THOMPSON: A couple of years ago, Mama Cax found these prosthetic leg covers manufactured by a company called Alleles.
MAMA CAX: I think before the constant thing was meeting people who had this sort of, like, look of pity. And although that still happens now, but I think when people see me, the first thing they think of is how cool of a design it is. And they want to know more about it. They want to know if I designed it myself or how many of them I have.
MEGAN THOMPSON: Cax owns 18 covers in all, and she did design one herself ... In partnership with the company.
MAMA CAX: It just gives me this, you know, newfound confidence. 'Cause I-- I just feel like it's such a great way to express myself.
MEGAN THOMPSON: And that, Cara McCarty says, is the power of innovative and inclusive design. Giving people choices, independence and pride. The Cooper Hewitt Access+Ability exhibit will run until September.
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