Photo: person holding a smart phone's camera to the art for a new accessibility app to describe the art

Fusing art and technology, the NYU Ability Project reimagines the Smithsonian’s Design Museum for visitors with disabilities 

When R. 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, Smithsonian Design Museum 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, who needed accessibility solutions. The result was the Cooper Hewitt Co-Lab, an interdisciplinary course through the NYU Ability Project; the goal was reimagining the Smithsonian Design Museum to accommodate visitors with disabilities.

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 that the museum had in mind.

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 space where disability and technology converge. Its unique focus is on human-centered design, in which students manage the ethics and sensitivities involved in problem solving for real people with disabilities.

Kearney-Volpe who, in addition to teaching the Cooper Hewitt Co-Lab, is also a Steinhardt doctoral student and research fellow for the Ability Project, said, “While I was at ITP, I took a fabulous class taught by Anita [Perr], Marianne [Petit], and Luke [DuBois]. 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.”

Photo: Claire Kearney-Volpe and students of the Cooper Hewitt Co-Lab

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 lab 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 divided into four groups, each focusing on one area of ease of access 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 areas of focus were determined. 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,” said Kearney-Volpe.

The website redesign group determined that visitors looking for accessibility information to plan an enjoyable trip to the museum weren’t finding 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.

Photo: Cooper Hewitt museum sign at the entrance of the museum's grounds

The mobility group took on the challenge of creating solutions for the museum’s signage, narrow doorways, and rocky paths that wheelchairs are currently unable to 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 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 another 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.

Photo: museum signage within the first floor's stairwell

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.

As a testament to the real-world training and expertise that Kearney-Volpe and Propati instilled in their students, Kearney-Volpe shared, “They’ve hired some of our students to keep working on their projects.”