Art, accessibility, and technology converged this spring in the Cooper Hewitt Co-Lab, an interdisciplinary course through the NYU Ability Project focused on reimagining the collection of the Smithsonian’s design museum for museumgoers with disabilities.
Luke DuBois, co-director of the Ability Project and associate professor of Integrated Digital Media at Tandon, learned from Caroline Baumann, director of the Cooper Hewitt, that the museum had started a new initiative to make its offerings more accessible to guests with disabilities, but didn’t currently have the people power to design and implement these changes. DuBois came up with the idea of creating a class where NYU students could act as technology and design consultants for clients, like Cooper Hewitt, needing accessibility solutions.
DuBois turned to Claire Kearney-Volpe, a doctoral student in Steinhardt’s rehabilitation sciences program and graduate of Tisch’s Interactive Telecommunications Program (ITP), and Domenick Propati, a Tandon adjunct professor who focuses on user experience, to teach the course and guide students in creating tech-oriented solutions to meet the new standards of accessibility the museum was working towards.
Creating Solutions with the NYU Ability Project
The NYU Ability Project – co-directed by DuBois, Steinhardt’s Anita Perr, and Tisch’s Marianne Petit – is an interdisciplinary research space dedicated to the intersection between disability and technology. It has a unique focus on human-centered design, in which students manage the ethics and sensitivities involved in problem-solving for real people.
“While I was at ITP, I took a fabulous class taught by Anita, Marianne, and Luke,” said Kearney-Volpe, who is also a research fellow for the Ability Project. “That class was my first foray into assistive and rehab technologies, and combined my interest in health and technology in a very unique way. I realized I could put all of my studies into creating things that actually helped people.”
Working Together Toward Accessibility at Cooper Hewitt
Through multiple site visits to the museum, a landmarked historical home in the Upper East Side, Cooper Hewitt served as both a client and playground for this spring’s students to design their solutions. Back in the classroom at NYU Tandon in Brooklyn, the students – a combination of Tisch and Tandon graduate students – quickly got to work for their new client using a human-centered approach to design.
The class broke into groups, each one focusing on one area of accessibility for the museum: website accessibility, mobility for wheelchair users, wayfinding for the visually impaired, and exhibit enjoyment for the visually impaired.
“We wanted the projects to emerge from the needs of various stakeholders, so the people with different disabilities who encounter the collection gave us immediate feedback,” said Kearney-Volpe about how the project topics came about. Students learned from a variety of stakeholders, including blind author and artist M. Leona Godin, Walei Sabry of the Mayor’s Office for People with Disabilities, and members of ADAPT Community Network. “We wanted the projects to be both user and client centered, so we involved the museum staff as well as curators as much as we could.”
The website redesign group determined that visitors looking for accessibility information to plan an enjoyable trip to the museum weren’t able to find what they needed on the current site. To remedy this, they created a proposal for a redesigned website incorporating suggestions from the community, as well as new design and layout aspects like changing the color contrast for those with sensory sensitivities.
The mobility group took on the challenge of creating solutions for the museum’s signage, narrow doorways, and rocky paths that wheelchairs are not able to currently navigate safely. This group created an online accessibility toolkit and tutorial for museum staff to assess spaces and exhibits to meet ADA accessibility requirements.
The wayfinding group conducted visits to the museum with visually impaired guests, as well as off-site usability tests, and suggested creating textured pathways and using “beacons,” or devices that can determine your location within a space through an app. Once near the beacons, visitors using the app would be instructed through a headset on how best to make their way through the space to exhibits, bathrooms, rest spots, and other areas.
The last team focused on exhibit enjoyment for the visually impaired, and created an app to read aloud the physical description of a piece of art, as well as give a history of the artist and the work. The app works by holding a phone’s camera over the piece of art; the phone then recognizes the location and begins to read the description aloud.
The Bright Future of Accessibility
At the end of the semester, the students presented their solutions to the museum’s director and senior staff, accessibility task force, and other community members.
“They’ve hired some of our students to keep working on their projects,” Kearney-Volpe shared — a testament to the real-world training and expertise that Kearney Volpe and Propati instilled in their students.