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From the humble potato peeler to a mid-century modern coffee table, every commercial object we come into contact with is the product of design. While these objects serve vastly different purposes—one purely functional; the other also a symbol of status and, perhaps, quirky taste—they each address human needs.

“Since its inception more than a century ago, the design profession has tackled life’s most essential problems,” says Rachel Delphia, The Alan G. and Jane A. Lehman Curator of Decorative Arts and Design at Carnegie Museum of Art (CMOA). “How do we cook, eat, dress, and stay warm or cold? How do we furnish our homes or communicate with each other?”

In a new exhibition, Carnegie Museum of Art is exploring designs that help people live more fully and independently as they navigate physical, cognitive, and sensory challenges.

Access+Ability, now open in the museum’s Heinz galleries, showcases more than seventy examples of accessible designs that meet the specific needs and challenges of their users. These objects represent breakthroughs enabled by modern technology and collaborative problem-solving between designers and users.

Prosthetic Leg Cover, 2011, McCauley Wanner and Ryan Palibroda, designers and manufacturers; Alleles Design Studio. Photo courtesy of the Alleles Design Studio Ltd.

The exhibition was organized by the Cooper Hewitt Smithsonian Design Museum in New York, where it was shown from December 2017 to September 2018 and was brought to CMOA by Delphia.

It includes accessible designs that range from low-tech products that assist with daily routines to the newest technologies that open worlds of possibilities to their users.

The Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 and subsequent amendments have spurred increased advocacy, wider access, and greater awareness of the challenges facing people with disabilities. Exhibitions like this one not only elevate the conversation but also show the innovative solutions that are being created every day.

Access+Ability shows how striving to improve the lives of individuals has resulted in products that enable vast numbers of people,” says Delphia. “It’s inspiring. I envision the museum doing more to celebrate and showcase this type of thinking.”

This summer, the museum rolls out a set of programs that respond to Access+Ability in innovative ways. The museum will continue In the Moment, its award-winning tours for visitors with dementia or Alzheimer’s. It will also expand its American Sign Language (ASL) and visual description tours, which launched last year to coincide with the 2018 Carnegie International.

For the first time, the visual description tours will be accompanied by tactile reproductions of two works from the museum’s collection, which offers visitors the chance to interact with these objects through touch. The two works are Mary Cassatt’s Young Women Picking Fruit and Frederic Church’s The Iceberg.

The museum is piloting a new program, called Performers at Play, that invites two local interactive performance groups to create sensory programming within the galleries. City of Play and slowdanger, the two chosen groups, will activate the museum through movement workshops, games, drawing sessions, pop-ups, and performances. Performers at Play launches June 8 with a movement workshop led by slowdanger; it is open to adults of all abilities and an ASL interpreter will be provided.

Earring Aid, Bedazzled, 2014. Designed by Elana Langer. Swarovski crystals, e6000 glue, hearing aid. Gift of Elana Langer. Photo: © Hanna Agar.

CMOA will also present a free lecture from Dr. José-Alain Sahel, director of the UPMC Eye Center, on June 13 with ASL interpretation.

Lucy Stewart, Associate Curator of Education at CMOA, manages the museum’s accessible programs and works closely with community members to understand how the museum can better serve them.

“We know that art can be a catalyst for emotional connection, wellness, creativity, and healing,” Stewart says. “We want to create experiences that open those opportunities to all of our visitors.”

Access+Ability is open until September 8, 2019. It is sponsored by Highmark Blue Cross Blue Shield and Allegheny Health Network.

Emma Watch (Prototype), 2016; Designed by Haiyan Zhang (Australian, born 1978) and Nicolas Villar (Colombian, born 1980); Manufactured by Microsoft Research (Albuquerque, New Mexico, USA, founded 1975); 3D-printing, Custom PCB; Courtesy of Haiyan Zhang. Photo by Alex Griffiths.