Designing for accessibility: From Frida Kahlo’s corsets to Franklin Roosevelt’s leg braces

Small innovations can go a long way.

One in five Americans has a disability, whether it’s diabetes or Down syndrome, asthma or paralysis from a car accident. To make the most out of life, people invariably turn to design.

Built environments are one example of the power of accessible thinking. Small choices like curb cuts in a sidewalk or elevators in subway stations can make the difference between an individual in a wheelchair (or, for that matter, with a child in a stroller) making it to their destination safely—or at all.

But the design of more personal belongings—things we might even term “fashion”—matter, too. Access to affordable hearing aids is important, but wouldn’t it better if they were also beautiful? Ditto canes and prosthetics, velcro jeans and onesies with stomach flaps for a child’s feeding tubes.

People have always lived with disabilities (Hannibal, the ancient warrior, lost an eye). But orthopedics, prosthetics, and other compensatory tools have only improved since ancient Carthage—if you can afford it. Here, we’ve compiled the stories of some of history’s most famous individuals and the state-of-the-art tools they were able to access.

Gottfried von Berlichingen’s iron hands

iron hands
Technical drawings of the mercenary’s iron hands. Wikipedia

“Götz,” as he was not-so-affectionately known, was a complicated man. Both a mercenary and a poet (his main literary contribution seems to be the invention of the phrase “lick my arse”), he fought in countless military campaigns and blood feuds during his 47-year career. For most of those years, he relied on an iron right arm.

It started in the 1504 siege of Landhut, when, depending on who you ask, cannon fire ripped his arm off at the elbow, or caused him to accidentally cut his arm off with his own sword. Determined to continue fighting (and, presumably, writing), the 23-year-old Götz commissioned an iron substitute.

iron hands
A picture of Götz’s prosthesis. Wikipedia

The first replacement hand was a rather typical five-fingered affair. It bent slightly at the top of the palm to clumsily grasp a sword. But the second hand, commissioned some years later, was a serious upgrade. It could hold not only a sword, but the reins of a horse and even the thin tip of a quill. Its mechanical fingers bent, like human fingers, at three joints, curling ever-tighter around the object in question. This early masterpiece of biomimicry served “Götz of the Iron Hand,” as he became known, for the rest of his murderous career—and into a long and peaceful retirement where he made poetry, not war.

Peter Stuyvesant’s peg leg

The last Dutch director of New Amsterdam, Peter Stuyvesant’s name (pronounced “Sty-va-sent”) is still written all across the city now known as New York.

peter stuyvesant painting
Asher B. Durand’s 1835 painting “Peter Stuyvesant and the Trumpeter.” Courtesy of the New York Historical Society

Born in 1610 in the Netherlands, Stuyvesant joined the Dutch West India Company as a young man. He was first stationed in Brazil, then in the Caribbean, which is where, in 1644, his leg was crushed by a cannonball and subsequently amputated below the knee. He returned briefly to the Netherlands to recuperate, but quickly began hatching new plans, motivated by the belief the loss of his leg was a sign from God that he was destined for greatness.

In 1645, he ventured to North America, with a wooden peg for a leg, which he reportedly studded with silver nails. He then spent the next 20 years harassing Native Americans, suppressing religions that differed from his own, and tending to a pear tree he brought from the motherland.

Helen Keller’s ocular prosthesis

When Helen Keller was just 19 months old, she contracted a life-threatening illness, probably meningitis or scarlet fever, that made her deaf and blind. As she grew, she used homemade signs to communicate (and eventually Braille, American Sign Language, and the English Alphabet), distinguished family members by the sound of their steps, and read people’s lips with her hands. In adulthood, she wrote a dozen books and was an international advocate for women’s suffrage and the rights of workers.

Helen Keller
Helen Keller, likely photographed at in New York City in April 1913. Library of Congress

Looking through photos of Keller throughout her lifetime, attentive viewers will notice a subtle shift in the way she was portrayed. In her youth, Keller was mostly photographed in profile, a way of hiding her left eye. In later pictures, however, Keller faces the camera directly, revealing striking blue eyes. The difference was ocular prosthetics, which Keller had implanted when she was an adult.

Such prosthetic devices date back thousands of years. One ancient Iranian woman was buried in 2,900 BCE with an eye made of bitumen paste, coated in gold to look like the rays of the sun. For her part, Keller received spheres made of glass. Today, most artificial eyeballs are a convex sheet of acrylic with the pupil, retina, and even some capillaries painted on; the whole thing is placed over an orbital implant. Typically, these devices aren’t medically necessary. The rapper Fetty Wap for example, made the decision to stop using his prosthetic. But many continue to choose them for appearance and comfort. Others, like the glass artist Dale Chihuly, opt for eye patches.

Franklin D. Roosevelt’s leg braces and cane

Roosevelt in a wheelchair
Franklin D. Roosevelt, his dog Fala, and Ruthie Bie at Hill Top Cottage in Hyde Park, New York. Franklin Delano Roosevelt Library/Wikimedia

Many American presidents have had disabilities. Bill Clinton wears hearing aids and Woodrow Wilson had dyslexia. Teddy Roosevelt was blinded in the left eye in a boxing match at the start of his second term, while Dwight Eisenhower had several heart attacks and strokes while in the White House, one of which caused aphasia, a form of brain damage that makes speech difficult. James Madison, one of the founding fathers, had a condition now thought to be epilepsy. But perhaps the president most closely associated with the rights of individuals with disability is Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

Franklin Roosevelt (standing with cane) and Eleanor Roosevelt
Franklin Roosevelt and his wife Eleanor Roosevelt. Library of Congress

Roosevelt was diagnosed with polio at the unusual age of 39. The result was paraplegia—immobility that extends to the abdomen, pelvis, and legs. He was outfitted with full-leg special braces, which allowed him to stand. To keep upright, he also required a cane. When coupled with the arm of a family member or White House aid, the cane and braces allowed him to swivel his hips forward and give the illusion of walking in public, something he felt was important to maintaining his political legitimacy. The press was complicit in this; newspaper and magazine photographers agreed not to photograph him in a way that showed his physical disability. Secret Service agents were instructed to hassle deviant photographs and destroy any supposedly images that ran counter to the administration’s narrative.

Despite this, for much of Roosevelt’s adult life, he moved around in a custom wheelchair, which was really a narrow dinner chair retrofitted with wheels.

Frida Kahlo’s plaster corsets

In one quick sketch, Frida Kahlo imagined herself in a see-through dress. Beneath the outline of the traditional Mexican clothing, she revealed a hard corset holding her upper body together, a metal strip running from her belly button to her neck, her pubic hair exposed, and butterflies climbing up her leg. “Las apariencias engañan,” she wrote below: Appearances can be deceiving.

plaster corset
Frida Kahlo’s plaster corsets spoke to her hopes, dreams, and ideology. Photo: Javier Hinojosa, courtesy of V&A Publishing

When Kahlo was six years old she contracted polio. It left her right leg shorter and weaker than her left. Then, at the age of 18, while studying to become a doctor, a wooden bus collided with a streetcar, sending an iron handrail through her pelvis. Both legs, several ribs, and her collarbone were also broken; three vertebrae were displaced. The incident, which left her bed-ridden for years, is also what made her an artist. She took up painting herself in her sickbed, using a mirror.

While she went on to travel widely, Kahlo needed support to get around. Between 1940 and 1954, she went through 28 different corsets, none of which seemed truly comfortable. Some were made from steel, but others were fashioned from plaster, which she painted with hammers and sickles (she was an avowed Communist) and compact fetuses (the accident left her unable to have children).

That’s not the only device Kahlo used to augment her body. In 1953, doctors amputated her right leg at the knee. Her prosthetic—and some absolutely incredible velvet platform shoes—are part of the Brooklyn Museum’s exhibit “Frida Kahlo: Appearances Can Be Deceiving,” about her life and art. Part of the show’s goal, says Catherine Morris, one of the curators who organized the exhibit, is to reveal Kahlo in all her complexities.

prosthetic leg
Frida Kahlo’s prosthetic leg is part of a new exhibit at the Brooklyn Museum. Photo: Javier Hinojosa, courtesy of V&A Publishing

“Too often she has been portrayed as a victim—of Rivera, of her disabilities, of her not having children. Kahlo’s complexity is her strength and her life experiences are what drove her art,” Morris wrote PopSci via email. “I also think it is important to acknowledge that typically able people often want to believe that those with disabilities overcome them—that somehow their humanity is outside of disability. Kahlo never overcame her disabilities, in fact she died from them, but what she produced and how she lived her life were fully attached to her experiences as a person with disabilities.”

Stephen Hawking’s wheelchair

Like Franklin Roosevelt, Stephen Hawking had a custom wheelchair. The late theoretical physicist was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, also known as ALS or Lou Gehrig’s disease, in 1963 at the age of 21, which progressively paralyzed him. At first he used only crutches, but eventually required a wheelchair. It also made it more and more difficult for him to write or speak.

Stephen Hawking at Kennedy Space Center
Stephen Hawking photographed on a visit to Kennedy Space Center. NASA/Kim Shiflett

For a time, Hawking responded to spelling cards with his eyebrows, picking letters and words with little up and down movements. But in 1986, he used the computer program Equalizer for the first time, which allowed him to press a switch to select words or phrases. His friends rigged a computer to his wheelchair, so he could take the robo-translator with him. As he lost the ability to use his hands, he began to use his cheek. While the software updated many times over the years, the basic mechanics helped Hawking communicate until his death in 2018.