Design for Everyone: Where to Begin?

Abstract blocks that look like homes or buildings

By Jennifer C. Schmidt

We, as architects and designers, have the power to influence the public experience of the built environment. As professionals licensed by our jurisdictions with the aim of maintaining health, safety, and welfare, it is our duty to create spaces that everyone can access and enjoy. Accessible design is an ancestor of the current trend for wellness design and should be the foundation of every code-compliant space or building. The Americans with Disabilities Act has made significant contributions to mainstream design, but the regulations are the minimum, more can and should be done. Through our work, architects should reinforce the importance of accessible design as a holistic process, from the way we communicate with clients and the public to developing design ideas at all project stages and formal review of the construction documents, not just mandated code requirements integrated into the final building design. Prioritizing the incorporation of accessible design throughout the entire design process results in more equitable placemaking and supports the basic position that people with disabilities belong in every facet of modern society.

According to the World Health Organization, 1.3 billion people, or 1 in 6 worldwide, experience significant disability. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control reports that 1 in 4 adults, or 61 million Americans, have a disability that impacts major life activities. Whether congenital or through injury or aging, or as a caretaker, most people will experience living with a disability or assisting a loved one with a disability as they navigate the world. Despite being one of the larger minority groups, acceptance and accommodations often lack progress. Before Congress passed the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) in 1990, access to the built environment was not guaranteed or expected and was regulated by a patchwork of sparse laws and special one-offs as needed. As a result, to this day, many spaces are not accessible, and the work of confirming access is placed squarely on the disabled person as they maneuver the world and demand equal access.

Most states and jurisdictions have enshrined the ADA regulations into their own local codes, while others have their own unique regulations. Enforcement of accessibility codes can range from local plan reviewers to civil litigation. Where we practice, there is also compliance in overlapping scenarios covered through the Massachusetts Architectural Access Board (MAAB) regulations chapter 521 CMR. In Massachusetts, architects and designers should have a working knowledge of both, as they are complementary but not identical.

But who are the accessibility codes really for, and do they make the built environment equitable for everyone?

Accessibility codes have been a tremendous boon to provide access for many who had no previous legal recourse. Over the course of the twentieth century, acceptance of people with disabilities has dramatically transformed, in no small part due to the improved access and integration with society that the ADA supports. The ongoing development of access in the United States and other countries provides rights hard won, but there is room for improvement. Most accessibility code language focuses on people with physical disabilities, specific to wheelchair users with upper body strength or the wherewithal to afford a powered chair; and to a lesser extent, people with vision impairment. There is opportunity to go above and beyond the ADA regulations, and it is our responsibility as architects to make life better for the 26% of Americans with disabilities.

The ADA regulation language focuses on two groups listed above, however, the full legislation defines people with disabilities to include cancer patients, people with diabetes, asthma, PTSD, autism, cerebral palsy, food allergies, migraines, chronic pain disorders, deafness or hearing loss, low vision to blindness, epilepsy, mobility disabilities that required use of walker or cane, intellectual disabilities, major depressive disorders, and traumatic brain injury.

To assume that the built environment cannot respond to or support people with the preceding list of disabilities is tremendously limiting of a profession that thrives on creativity and problem solving in three dimensions. Merely meeting the letter of the current accessibility building codes does not equal making the lived experience of disabled populations comparable to a non-disabled person: a lot of people are left behind and left out. I challenge my colleagues, nationwide and globally, to go above and beyond, ask questions, and educate themselves.

How do accessible design features impact all our lives everyday?

Many everyday building elements are greatly influenced by the ADA regulations, and people born in the later decades of the 20th century and onward are used to seeing them in contemporary spaces without realizing they are important tools for access.

• Intuitive door hardware – following the passage of the ADA, round twist doorknobs are no longer allowed in public spaces. The lever-style hardware and standard force required to open is ubiquitous now, the experience of opening a door has become intuitive.

• Standardization of handrails on stairs and ramps minimize injury for everyone while providing a lifeline for people with extra mobility or balance needs.

• Increased elevator requirements – people in wheelchairs, caregivers, people who push children in strollers all benefit from increased integration into more spaces with the proliferation of required elevators.

• The single user accessible restroom, champion of multipopulation accommodation, is not just for people who use wheelchairs, but also great for people who need to change a diaper or their clothes, empty a colostomy bag, privacy to give insulin shots or do ritual washing for religious practice, for those experiencing gastric distress, and also a refuge for someone excluded by gendered restrooms.

Where does the code fail us?

People with disabilities did not ask for a default building standard that leaves them out, and they deserve to fully participate in society. While lengthy, building codes can only passively respond to accessibility needs. In many cases, policy needs to catch up as well. When we talk about the additional burden placed upon people with a disability, including but not limited to:

• Being forced to share sensitive medical information with coworkers/supervisors/ strangers, to gain access, essentially having to educate everyone you encounter on your limits and abilities.

• Not given consideration for higher paying full-time employment due to stereotypes or fear of needing to take additional medical leave.

• Acquiring affordable personal or medical assistance, custom mobility devices not covered by insurance, equipment needed to stay alive.

• Needing to research/call ahead to verify if locations are fully accessible or not, having to locate unclear accessible routes, waiting for use of occupied accessible spaces/ facilities when they make up only a small percentage of options.

While the Americans with Disabilities Act was groundbreaking in the standardization of accessibility standards in the building code, it can be slow to update and, in some cases, entirely silent on some notable populations. There can be a mindset among some architects and designers that accessibility code elements are an extra when they should be baseline. The architect is not an ally to the disability community when some code loopholes are exploited, two examples are listed below.

• The ADA allows for separate solutions. Grand main building entries up a flight of monumental stairs were a hallmark of American civic architecture of the 19th and 20th centuries. If you are unable to climb stairs, you may find yourself having to circle the building until you locate a side or back entry, which is hopefully clearly labeled and unlocked, to gain entry via ramp or lift. An accessible route that is not intuitively located may meet the letter of the code, but the experience is not equitable. When designers accept a longer path, a secondary, circuitous “accessible route,” people with disabilities have been othered by architecture.

• In some cases, lack of access is allowed under the ADA. Some spaces are grandfathered in, or allowed to be exempt from certain requirements. In some jurisdictions, multilevel residential buildings do not have to provide elevators under certain conditions. However, many people do not plan on becoming disabled and will find themselves needing improved access. Best practices for integrating an accessibilitypositive mindset throughout the design process

• Educate yourself on politically correct terminology surrounding disability. Respect the terms used by a person with disabilities if they feel comfortable self-identifying. Examples of outdated terms include “handicapped” or “wheelchair bound,” aim for “person with disabilities,” and “person who uses a wheelchair.”

• Consider the accessibility of all design collateral produced during the design process. At completion of construction, the building should be accessible but in the course of your work, aim for inclusivity with every document, presentation, and email along the way.

• View the ADA, and in Massachusetts, MAAB CMR 521, as the code-minimum lowest bar of accessible design.

• Engage with people with disabilities in design meetings and throughout the design process where appropriate.

• If you are on the other end of the AIA contract as a property owner or developer, seek to hire architects who are committed to championing accessibility.

• Projects should be reviewed at all major milestones in project delivery for appropriate accessibility benchmarks. Within your firm, formalize an accessibility-specific QA/QC checklist parallel to your regular reviews. Accessibility code should be the baseline, not an afterthought.

• Building codes, including the full ADA language with graphic diagrams, are available on the internet. Everyone who works in design should prioritize developing a working knowledge. I encourage younger architects that memorizing door clearance, handrail extension, or tactile braille signage standards should be a strong part of your personal brand.

• If you are in a position to mentor younger people in the architectural profession, be the model of inclusion and equity; and maintain an actively positive attitude about the ADA. Design professionals inhabit a position of authority, we have a lot of power to shape the space that many thousands will occupy over decades. Use that privilege for good.

While the Americans with Disabilities Act was groundbreaking at its inception, architects should challenge and surpass the basic level of regulations. The accessible design regulations should cover a wider range of needs and should be enforced with fewer exemptions. Prioritizing the incorporation of accessible design throughout the entire design process results in more equitable placemaking and supports the basic position that people with disabilities belong in every facet of modern society. Architects and designers should be assertive supporters of wider accessible design, and advocate for the disability community in all of their work.

Cover of The Inclusive Design Issue of Design Museum Magazine with a yellow background.

From Design Museum Magazine Issue 026