Book cover image for Bess Williamson's book, Accessible America. The graphic features a variety of colored squares, each containing an architectural drawing related to access, mainly images of ramps and stairs.

Accessible America

A History of Disability and Design

By Bess Williamson

January, 2019  |  304 pages  |  57 black and white illustrations  |  ISBN: 978-1-47989-4093

A history of access as a 20th century design value

This book describes the emergence of a category of design that is widely seen, but rarely discussed. Wheelchair ramps, curb cuts, the “ding” of elevators — these ubiquitous touchstones of modern life were once anything but. The book tracks the contributions of policymakers, medical professionals, activists, and disabled people and their families to expanding notions of rights and inclusion in the everyday environment.

Praise for Accessible America

“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

“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

Articles & Reviews

Review: “Building Access: Universal Design and the Politics of Disability and Designing Disability: Symbols, Space, and Society” Disability Studies Quarterly, Winter 2018.

“Designing Objects and Spaces: A Modern Disability History,” in Rembis, Michael, Catherine J. Kudlick, and Kim Nielsen, eds. The Oxford Handbook of Disability History. New York: Oxford University Press, 2018.

Review: “Access + Ability.” Design and Culture 10, no. 2 (2018).

Access.” In Keywords for Disability Studies, edited by Rachel Adams, Benjamin Reiss, and David Serlin. New York: New York University Press, 2014.

Electric Moms and Quad Drivers: People with Disabilities Buying, Making, and Using Technology in Postwar America.” American Studies 52, no. 1 (2012): 5–30.
This article was excerpted in Boys, Jos, ed. Disability, Space, Architecture: A Reader. New York: Routledge, 2017.

Getting a Grip: Disability and American Industrial Design of the Late Twentieth Century.” Winterthur Portfolio 46, no. 4 (Winter 2012): 213–36.