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

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.

Winner of the 2019-2020 Mr. and Mrs. Raymond Horowitz Book Prize from Bard Graduate Center

Read an excerpt: Stanford Social Innovation Review: “Design for All

Making Disability Modern


Making Disability Modern: Design Histories brings together leading scholars from a range of disciplinary and national perspectives to examine how designed objects and spaces contributes to the meanings of ability and disability from the late 18th century to the present day, and in homes, offices, and schools to realms of national and international politics. The contributors reveal the social role of objects – particularly those designed for use by people with disabilities, such as walking sticks, wheelchairs, and prosthetic limbs – and consider the active role that makers, users and designers take to reshape the material environment into a usable world. But it also aims to make clear that definitions of disability-and ability-are often shaped by design.

Highlights on instagram: #MakingDisabilityModern

Praise for Accessible America and Making Disability Modern

“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

Accessible America is a remarkable achievement. It is part of a growing U.S. disability historiography that links the experiences of disabled people and their allies with broader histories of social and labor movements, politics, culture, and the everyday lives of Americans.”

Michael Rembis, American Historical Review

“While Accessible America is a work of history, I was struck by the degree to which attitudes and ideas about disability have not replaced each other over the decades so much as accreted, so that all of the attitudes and design trends Williamson describes can still be seen in action today… a fascinating history lesson, an accessible introduction to disability studies, and a panoramic look at the ideas and designs that continue to structure the lives of people with disabilities today.”

Lara Friedenfelds, Nursing Clio

“[Making Disability Modern] includes clear academic design historical research and offers examples that range from archival research, to interviews with design innovators and analysis of current digital network developments. ‘The evidence presented in these chapters suggests that design cannot and does not cure everything, and that a multiplicity of possible approaches exists at any given time in history’ (p. 8). Ultimately the book makes a compelling argument that disability was key to the development of modern design, and makes a very articulate case for including disabled people and their design knowledge in mainstream design history.”

Jo Gooding, Journal of Design History

Articles & Reviews

There are No Impairments: Disability in Post-ADA Media,” All of Us: ADA Turns 30, Disability History Association.

“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.

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