Accessibility without Accountability at Cooper Hewitt
Cooper Hewitt may be shifting their language around disability and accessibility, but everything else remains the same.
At the opening reception for the 2018 exhibition Access+Ability at the Smithsonian’s Cooper Hewitt Museum in New York, former director Caroline Baumann spent 10 minutes publicly thanking various individuals and entities that made the exhibition possible. I felt like I was the only person in the room who noticed that she failed to thank a single disabled person. But then again, I can’t imagine anyone else in the room responded to the invite by asking if the event would be “featuring or giving voice to — or, as I have since learned to phrase, “amplifying the perspective” of any disabled people?
It has taken me half a decade to develop the language and literacy to explain how Cooper Hewitt relegated disabled people to the margins in order to shape an idealistic narrative of 21st-century “innovations” in the field of disability design. It was the spring of 2017 when I first sat across from curator Cara McCarty in the museum’s garden. We were introduced not long before, because she was in a rush to work on what would become Access+Ability. It felt like the opportunity of a lifetime, as consulting gigs for disabled people that do disability work are scarce. Especially then.
McCarty jotted down notes as I insisted this cannot simply be an exhibition about disability, and that it has to be done with disabled people. For me, “with” was a resistance word, rooted in the foundational “nothing about us without us” disability invocation. And I meant for it to reflect the agency and ownership disabled people had with regard to that exhibition. I was dismayed when Cooper Hewitt superfluously incorporated “with” into the Access+Ability blurb, advertising “over 70 innovative designs developed in the last decade for and with people with disabilities.”
I was even more horrified to discover the central display of the exhibit featured a Disability Dongle, which is the outcome of a process led by a designer-savior who lacks the proficiency to adequately address the surface level problem they have scoped. These often abandoned prototypes have given rise to such phenomena as what I call the wheelchair-to-warfare pipeline, in which disabled subjects are used to develop technologies that will ultimately be taken up in military operations. The Superflex Aura Power bodysuit prototype was described by McCarty as a “21st-century girdle or a corset,” and contained “electric muscles” developed by DARPA to provide “core wellness support” to an elderly person’s torso. Other objects were born of questionable methods, such as IDEO’s Los Angeles County Voting Booth prototype, which used disability simulation, a practice that “promotes distress and fails to improve attitudes toward disabled people,” to inform its designers.
Olúfẹ́mi O. Táíwò’s 2022 book Elite Capture has helped me understand how a word could come to take on the meaning of the dynamic it was confronting. He writes, “political projects can be hijacked in principle or in effect by the well positioned and resourced […] to pacify protestors without enacting material reforms.” Cooper Hewitt went on to describe how designs featured in the exhibition “reflect the changing emphasis on what a person can do if given the opportunity.” But, this work has taught me that opportunity is often hoarded by those who tout opportunity being given.
In my commitment to contributing however I could, I connected McCarty with the official corporate sponsor for the exhibition, as well as some of the makers featured in the exhibit. But because I did not want to lose this opportunity, I didn’t press for a contract. I just kept at the work, believing the credit and compensation that McCarty led me to believe I would receive would eventually get worked out. But relations began to degrade as my concerns about the exhibit grew.
It wasn’t until McCarty responded to my concerns in an email, writing: “You expressed lament over the direction of my exhibition,” that I realized she was far too possessive in her role as curator to embrace the collective “with” that I was seeking. Had I read Paulo Freire’s 1968 book Pedagogy of the Oppressed back in 2017, I would have understood “the oppressor knows full well that this intervention would not be to his interest. What is to his interest is for the people to continue in a state of submersion, impotent in the face of oppressive reality.” Ultimately I was never paid and never credited for my contributions to Access+Ability. Instead, McCarty told me I should be grateful for the time she gave to me.
I now interpret curation as a form of control. You get curated in when the institution knows it can absorb and contain any hypocrisy you may present. And you get curated out when the hypocrisy you reveal is their own. This was why McCarty was so unwilling to consider my ideas about inviting disabled users of the objects on display to write the wall labels. Replicating the brand line shows a deference that she similarly received from the media that covered her exhibition.
Last week, Cooper Hewitt featured a conversation on “Centering Disability in Design” as part of its National Design Week programming. “Centering” is a similarly ambiguous word to ‘with’ that does nothing to communicate the agency, credit, and compensation of disabled contributors. I found out about the program when I received an email invitation to participate as a panelist. The facilitator, who is part of a new Cooper Hewitt administration, was unaware of my background with Access+Ability, even though her predecessor reached out at the onset of Covid to say she was “sorry that the staff of the museum learned many lessons at your expense, [and] that some important lessons were never learned.” It was a personal apology, because she couldn’t apologize on behalf of the museum.
Institutional turnover is an important tool of capitalism, which “subsumes and consumes all previous history,” according to cultural theorist Mark Fisher.
Cooper Hewitt’s disability history can be traced through the niece of the museum’s founders. Ann Cooper Hewitt was forcibly sterilized by her mother, Maryon Cooper Hewitt, in an effort to collect Ann’s inheritance. According to Audrey Clare Farley, author of The Unfit Heiress: The Tragic Life and Scandalous Sterilization of Ann Cooper Hewitt, “the family members may not have bankrolled or publicly supported sterilization campaigns” but they did manage to “erase eugenics from the public memory while upholding the movement’s ideals” by removing “papers and records relating to Ann and Maryon from the items eventually donated” to the museum.
Cooper Hewitt continues to tout its accessibility “leadership,” going so far as to publish an array of accessibility guidelines and toolkits as resources for other institutions. But, as Sara Ahmed explains in her 2021 book Complaint!, “When writing a new policy is deemed sufficient, a policy is insufficient.”
Many of the measures laid out in Cooper Hewitt’s comprehensive accessibility policy were already in place back in 2017, thanks to the unacknowledged advocacy of generations of disabled people. But these policies fail to acknowledge how gaining access means disabled people also risk the deleterious effects of greater exposure to an institution’s exploitative practices. How beneficial is a ramp to a room when everyone else in attendance will gaslight you? This is why Cooper Hewitt will not become accessible to me until it reckons with its own history of excluding and erasing the disabled people who have crossed its path. And that accountability work needs to begin with Ann.