By Jeanette Schmoyer and Jacob Ford
In mid-October our grandson, Jacob Ford, invited my husband, Dick, and me to join him for a visit to the Cooper Hewitt Museum in New York. The museum was featuring a temporary exhibit scheduled to end on October 22, 2018. The exhibit was titled “The Senses: Design Beyond Vision,” a design exhibition which focused on designing for senses other than sight. Many of the curated inventions, devices, and designs were developed for those with sensory disabilities, or other disabilities such as dementia.
The Cooper Hewitt Museum is one of nineteen museums that fall under the wing of the Smithsonian Institution and is one of three Smithsonian facilities located in New York City. Cooper Hewitt is in the Andrew Carnegie mansion on the upper east side of Manhattan, next to the east side of Central Park.
According to the website, “Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum is the only museum in the United States devoted exclusively to historic and contemporary design. After a three-year renovation, the museum re-opened in December 2014 with exhibitions featuring a rich mix of design objects from our permanent collection, unique temporary installations, and dynamic interactive experiences. We also have an exciting calendar of events, including hands-on workshops, talks, and family programs.”
On a lower level of the museum there were objects and ideas that had been winners in a high school student design contest which also dealt with consideration for people with disabilities.
In the main exhibit, some of the most interesting things we saw on display were kitchen and bathroom items using contrasting colors. For example, plates for eating had a high contrast red ring around the edge of the white plates. Similarly, the white sink in the bathroom had a high contrast red ring around the edge of the sink and had the same contrasting red sink hardware. Hand rails for the tub/shower and towel racks were also in dark contrasting colors on the white bathroom tiles. This use of dark contrasting colors was designed for those with dementia because it directs their attention to the items and helps them focus. However, as we know, high contrast is a known vital ingredient for people with low vision and thus serves the double purpose. See more on the high-contrast bathroom hardware by HEWI: tinyurl.com/ycckoop6.
In another area of the main exhibit we were able to pick up and examine eating utensils with tactile markings on the handles to identify the utensil without touching the bowl of the spoon or the tines of the fork. The marking on the knife indicated the sharp edge of the knife. For more on the tactile cutlery and more by Simon Kinneir, see: tinyurl.com/y9j6vuuu.
The high-tech item that will interest many of you is a braille tactile watch that had refreshable braille on the face of the watch. Pushing a button on the side of the watch would bring up the braille pins to tell the time. An alarm could also be set which would vibrate and then pop up the braille pins to indicate the appropriate time. In addition, this “Dot watch” could be paired with your smart phone and the watch would vibrate to indicate the arrival of a text message or caller ID for a phone call and present the text of a message in braille. This Dot watch was available in the museum gift shop and is also available from Amazon. It is advertised as the first braille and tactile blue tooth smart watch. This company is also working on a larger Kindle-like device with a large array of refreshable Braille, as well as a standard for public signage and wayfinding. See more on their accessible website: dotincorp.com.
A system of color labeling called Feelipa was on display. It was based on shapes. For example, if a triangle stood for red and a circle stood for yellow, then orange was made up of half a triangle and half a circle. In the system, light and dark shades were indicated with horizontal bars over the relevant color shape. One bar for white/light, two for grey/medium, and three bars for black/dark. Any combination of two primary colors could be represented with the combined shapes. This system would work well if it became universal, at least within one nation. The tactile shapes could be used on furniture, paint cans, clothing, and so much more. See their own accessible website: feelipa.com.
Among the student-winning presentations were items for other disabilities, such as a wheelchair that had a back that folded down to become a walker. There was an idea to translate sign language into text and audio to allow deaf and hard of hearing people and sighted people to all communicate with each other simultaneously.
Another practical idea was a proposed standard for tactile markings embedded in sidewalks and walking paths, to be felt by canes. Grooves indicate the direction of a path. Differing dot patterns indicate building entrances, bus stops, lowered curbs, and construction zones. Video with audio description of these is here: youtube.com/watch?v=lJAmnwGzD54.
I hope you have enjoyed walking through this exhibit in your mind’s eye. We live in exciting times with amazing technology and new ideas for inventions for people with disabilities. I thank Jacob for encouraging us to come see this exhibit, and for his assistance in doing research for this article.
The street address for the Cooper Hewitt Museum is 2 E 91st St, New York, NY 10128. The phone number is 212-849-8400. The website is cooperhewitt.org.