Universal design is the design of products and environments to be usable by all people, to the greatest extent possible, without the need for adaptation or specialized design. –Ron Mace
Ten years ago to the month, Rheumatoid Arthritis Guy was putting the final touches on his graduate thesis project. At the time I had no idea that my destiny was to become a superhero in the near future. The funny thing: even at that time – ten years ago – I was already designing with superheroes in mind.
The Americans with Disabilities Act was still relatively new in the world of architecture. In many of the articles I read on the topic, I sensed an attitude of annoyance. This is yet one more checklist we have to go through. And don’t even thing of making any renovations to a building, as you’ll be obligated to comply with all of the aspects of the new law. And restaurants – how are they going to survive by reducing the number of tables in order to make the space more accessible? (Serve better food at a more reasonable price, maybe?)
I thought the idea of designing for people with disabilities was a beautiful thing. I started doing more research on the subject as the time to finalize my thesis topic approached, and stumbled upon the world of Universal Design. What a great concept! Let’s design product and environments for all types of people – people with disabilities, people of different ages, and people of different cultures. (In the world of mass production that we live in, it’s easy to believe that there is such a thing as a “typical” person that comes in three sizes, no?)
As I was in architecture graduate school, the main part of my thesis manifested itself in a design project which was preceded by a semester of writing. I decided that I was going to design a “Museum of Prosthetic Devices”. I had two goals.
The first was to make a wheelchair-accessible ramp the primary form of vertical circulation through the building. I was already tired of the practice of slapping on a ramp in the least desirable corner in order to comply with the new accessibility requirements. (I used to call these “Lee Press-On Ramps”.)
My second goal was to show the beauty of all types of assistive devices, from the antique to the modern. My research led me to the library in the medical campus across town, where I found catalogs of all types of prosthetic devices, wheelchairs and mobility aids, visual aids, and hearing aids. To me, these items were true objects of art and deserved to receive recognition beyond their utilitarian medical purpose – I even kept a prosthetic leg at my drafting table for motivation. (During my final review, I was told that my entire thesis dripped with irony, as I was trying to put the spotlight on items that should remain invisible. Can you believe that?)
My career in the past decade has spanned many different areas of design practice. I continue to see some of the same thinking, that designing for accessibility is something to added at the last minute in order to be able to check off the corresponding boxes. I will continue with the principle that accessible design should be the starting point in all fields, from software design to product design to urban and building design.