Loeb Lab 13: Universal Design–a Fitting Environment

Throughout her career as an architect and urban designer, Denise Arnold has promoted principles of universal design to elevate inclusion and equity for people living with disabilities–­that is, all of us one day. She reflects on the legacy of the Americans with Disabilities Act, 25 years old this year.

This July marked the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act, civil rights legislation that mandates equal access to privately and publicly funded programs, services and activities to people with mental and physical disabilities. Building on previous disability rights legislation, the ADA expanded accessibility laws mandating fair housing and barrier-free government constructed facilities to include access to employment, privately constructed buildings and all government funded services. But after the balloons were released, the general mood of the disability community was bittersweet. The ADA has given a disadvantaged minority group the tool to fight for change, but so much more needs to happen before true equality can be felt every day and everywhere.

In a previous role at the City of Chicago Mayor’s Office for People with Disabilities, one of my work duties was to respond to complaint letters from disabled residents and visitors. Most complaints focused around the Chicago Transit Authority and a lack of accessible subway stations. It was ironic to hear that one of the anniversary roll-outs at a Washington DC celebration was the announcement of a new US Department of Transportation system-wide complaint center regarding accessibility on sidewalks, buses, trains and planes.

Only a few months prior, an autistic child was ejected from a United Airlines plane in fear that the child would disrupt the flight after airline staff refused to offer food reserved for first class passengers. A year prior, Disney World terminated its special needs pass which provided disabled patrons special accommodations, bypassing lines at most rides, because non-disabled patrons were “buying” passes with special needs patrons hired for the day. But the ADA requires reasonable accommodations, and the families who need the pass to participate no longer can enjoy Disney at all. With landmark legislation that altered how and what we construct and whom we hire and stipulated equal access to public funded programs and services, how can there still be such an abundance of blatant civil rights violations?

Some accessibility polices are designed in a way that creates inequity. Hotel rooms can charge more money for a typical room simply because it contains an accessible shower stall. And until revisions to the ADA Accessibility Guidelines were made in 2012, hotel rooms and dwelling units designated for the hearing impaired were allowed to be constructed one hundred percent overlapping with units designated for people with mobility impairments. These two disability groups rarely require the same accommodations, and overlapping limited options for use by both groups.

And some buildings by design create inequity. For example, when theaters sell assigned seating, box office staff are required to offer an accessible seat in place of the purchased one. Without proper staff training or a reserved accessible seat of equal quality to the purchased seat, discriminatory acts are guaranteed to happen. This type of service dependent accessibility occurs in theaters, hotel rooms and rental housing. Better design, i.e. accessible seating abundantly placed throughout the seating pavilion, can create equal options for all patrons.

Access alone as regulated by building codes is not enough, but feeling welcome and unnoticed at the same time seems to be what matters to people with disabilities. Welcome in that no alternate routes are needed to be taken. Unnoticed in that assistance is not required. Until now these variables have been unaccountably difficult to achieve. Eric Lipp, a disabled colleague, recently pondered and wrote in the Huffington Post: “There are no degrees in college for ‘Inclusive Design.’”

A simple solution is to be guided by our desire to meet the intent of the law. As design leaders, we must advocate for equal access. As Loeb Fellows, it is our role to become design stewards, training future architects, planners, and designers to consider people of varying abilities in the design and development of products and places. I often hear that the ADA-required dwelling unit is not marketable to non-disabled buyers. Why is the design of the disabled unit different from the standard unit? With current statistics showing one in five American adults claims a disability–mobility, vision, hearing, cognitive ­that affects self-help skills and limits independence, it is time for us design leaders to create products, spaces and policies that are marketable to all. If not out of morality, do it for the market share.

A large hope for improved inclusion opportunities for people with disabilities is riding on better educational opportunities. Under IDEA legislation, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act that was enacted in 1975 and amended in 2004, children with disabilities are ensured an opportunity to receive a free and appropriate public education. But education attainment by people with disabilities remains at disproportionate lows (less than 26 percent attain a college bachelor’s degree) compared to that by people without a disability (75.9 percent earn a bachelor’s degree or higher.) And since all school programs dissolve at the age of 21, we have a short time frame to facilitate the development of self help and vocational skills. By decreasing funding for special education, eliminating programs and dollars for parental support and relegating children with special needs to the back of the classroom where they won’t disrupt the neuro-typicals, we are creating a future funding gap as 2.8 million American children with disabilities continue to need financial, housing and life support into adulthood.

Prospects for a brighter future were sparked during a recent visit to NYC where I was honored to meet Peggy Groce of the Board of Education. Annually, Peggy saves the school district over $5 million with traveler training for young adults with limited cognitive capacities – students with an average IQ of 38. With 15 minutes a day, 4 days a week, for 3 consecutive weeks, Peggy and her staff train disabled children to travel from home to school alone on the school bus or the NYC subway system, eliminating the need for private taxi services and one-on-one aides riding along. Peggy’s program is a testament to the capacity of these children to grow and change. They are smart and capable when given the right supports.

What is the future of the ADA? People with mobility disabilities currently hold the most clout, controlling the US Access Board, the federal government’s policy and advocacy agency; however, cognitive disabilities related to the natural aging process and Alzheimer’s and children with autism rank as the fastest growing disabled population. While recent wartime activities have helped advance technological innovations addressing mobility impairments, therapeutic and educational programs rely on Behaviorism techniques spawned in the 1950s and medically approved for autism in 1980. Innovative approaches to educational and therapeutic programs such as Peggy Groce’s traveler training are regularly dismissed as not medically proven methodologies, leaving cognitive disability research at a standstill. Real progress requires challenging norms, and that means contradicting current thought, funding research and being open to including people with differences in all aspects of society.

Photos courtesy of George Lambros, © Lambros Photography, Inc.
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One Response to Loeb Lab 13: Universal Design–a Fitting Environment

  1. The comment about bundling accessible facilities (in a hotel setting, for example) illustrates eloquently the depth of misunderstanding regarding inclusive design. Sensory and mobility impairments are rarely linked in an individual, yet the only guidelines available to designers – the ADA and various building codes and standards – treat these as related conditions. When the construction industry eventually recognizes that disability is a fact of life, we’ll have universal access. In the meantime, what’s needed is curiosity, creativity, compassion,… and [my book] The Accessible Home: Designing for All Ages and Abilities.

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