Building Accessibility Into America, Literally

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A public building has everyone as its client, after all. Does its design evolve out of a truly collaborative process that engages, upfront, the diversity of users, including those with disabilities, who know best what they need and want?

“There is only so much that legislation can ever do,” Xian Horn, a disability rights advocate, speaker and teacher in New York, born with cerebral palsy, said recently. “The issue goes beyond civil rights. It’s also about hospitality, patronage, a broader vision of accessibility, and ultimately about doing what’s best for the bottom line.”

With one in four American adults living with disabilities, designing for accessibility and diversity should hardly be considered a chore or just a compliance issue. It’s an opportunity, both economic and creative, but one that requires a shift in mind-set. A ramp can be something stuck onto a building to check off some legal requirement.

Or it can inspire the helical design of the Ed Roberts Campus in Berkeley, Calif., by Leddy Maytum Stacy Architects. Or the serpentine pathways of the Robert W. Wilson Overlook that Weiss/Manfredi, the New York architecture firm, recently devised to wind through the Brooklyn Botanic Garden.

“Architecture, from Vitruvius through Le Corbusier, has mirrored Western culture, for whom the default user has always been the straight, white, healthy, tall male,” said Joel Sanders, a New York-based architect and Yale professor who runs MIXdesign, a think tank focused on inclusion. “Everyone else, including those with mobility or cognitive issues, tends to become an afterthought, a constraint to creativity, an added cost.”

Nearly a century ago, tubular steel inspired both Marcel Breuer’s Wassily chair and new, lighter wheelchairs. Chairs by Charles and Ray Eames, now classics of midcentury modernism, evolved from a molded plywood splint the couple devised for wounded soldiers during World War II.



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