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Making NYC Accessible for Everyone

An image of Manhattan, New York City.

As an international student from South Korea at IxD, I have learned a lot recently about the concepts of inclusive design and accessibility. These terms refer to designing products and environments that can be used by all people, to the greatest extent possible, without needing additional adaptation or specialized design. Coming from a country where awareness of these critical design principles is still emerging, I have noticed striking contrasts in how inclusivity and accessibility are embraced and implemented here in the U.S. In this blog post, I will share my experiences and observations of how accessible design is implemented in public spaces in New York City. 

At left: a button that activates a door for wheelchair users. At right: an accessibility ramp inside a building.

                                                            Automatic doors with visible buttons.                                                                      Ramps instead of stairs.

I firmly believe that equal access to public services and experiences is a fundamental right for all. The commitment to accessibility and inclusion in New York City is readily apparent in its public transportation system and libraries. This philosophy seems ingrained in the everyday fabric of New York, from wheelchair symbols being a common sight to practical features like low-floor buses, foldable priority seats, and many subway stations outfitted with ramps.

However, despite these advancements, full accessibility remains lacking in many older subway stations, especially those outside major transit hubs. For example, in Manhattan, many stations on the 1, 2, and 3 subway lines still do not have elevators, which makes it extremely difficult for wheelchair users and those with mobility challenges to access the platforms. The MTA has an ongoing effort to add more elevators system-wide, but progress is slow due to the age and complexity of the infrastructure. Relying on just a few accessible stations significantly limits route options and forces longer commutes for disabled riders. Accessibility cannot just be limited to the newest or most high-traffic stations – it needs to be system-wide.

At left: foldable seating in a city bus. At right: a ramp in a subway station.

                                                                  Foldable seating on the bus.                                                 Multiple ways to get to the upper level of the station. 

An area that intrigues me greatly is the role of emerging technologies like AI (Artificial Intelligence ) in enhancing accessibility. AI is revolutionizing inclusive design, offering solutions once considered futuristic. I found an example is Aira, an app that connects blind and low-vision users to a network of agents who provide visual assistance in real-time using the camera on smart glasses or a handheld device. This kind of on-demand service was impossible not long ago. Other innovations like voice control, text-to-speech, and automatic live captions also demonstrate technology’s potential to remove barriers for not only people with disabilities but also non-native speakers. However, work still needs to be done to make AI and accessibility tools inclusive in themselves, in terms of representation, transparency, and ethical design.

At left: Image of the Aira app interface. At right: a YouTube video with closed captioning.

New York’s wealth of cultural and artistic institutions also showcases inspiring examples of accessible design. As a hub of culture and art, many of the city’s world-class museums and concert halls demonstrate how the arts can be made accessible to all, regardless of abilities or backgrounds. From tactile exhibits for the visually impaired at the Guggenheim to hearing loop systems installed at Carnegie Hall, these venues transcend physical and sensory barriers through thoughtful design.

In particular, I would like to highlight the following programs:

Group of people with different abilities in a museum. A woman at the front of the group is speaking.

The Guggenheim Museum’s Mind’s Eye tours and workshops for blind or low vision visitors, conducted through verbal descriptions, sensory experiences, and creative practices.

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Row of people sitting on a bench, looking at a painting in a museum.

The MoMA’s “Meet Me at MoMA” program for visitors with dementia and their caregivers, facilitating dialogue through interactive art exploration with specially trained educators.

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Learning about these resources deepened my understanding of the importance of accessibility. It is not just about compliance, but truly opening up spaces, experiences
and opportunities to all. This journey has been an invaluable educational experience while also a personal reminder of inclusive design’s power in shaping a more equitable world.