The Substantive Impact of Universal Design

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If you stare at the periodic table long enough, you find your element — a scientifically natural state of comfort, ease and exemplarity. Your math lecture, her running track, his art studio, the blue denim chair in which I sit as I write — all elements of a periodic peoplehood, a map of the very spaces in which we belong and in which we thrive.

When removed from our element, we emit fear and radiate vulnerability. Braving the elements of others, we are reduced to our limitations. This is what society looks like for many individuals with disabilities. When cities and buildings were designed decades ago, it was with the able-bodied in mind. But a steep staircase, a narrow sidewalk or a cumbersome door are barriers to opportunity for those who are disabled. Structural injustice resonates to this day. In response, a simple idea is changing the way we build our world: universal design.

​Universal design refers to the architectural ideology promoting accessibility and inclusivity in city, building and environmental planning. It maximizes space and sustainability at little to no additional cost, maintaining aesthetics. While universal design is particularly helpful for individuals with disabilities, it is beneficial to the entire community insofar as it champions diversity and is conducive to divergent lifestyles.

Architectural design for the disabled is rooted in a history of injustice and subsequent legal reform. In 1990, the Americans with Disabilities Act was passed to protect the disabled community from discrimination in the workplace and community affairs. Subsequently, in 1991, the “ADA Standards for Accessible Design” held public facilities and transportation accountable to a particular set of structural regulations in order to promote equal opportunity for disabled individuals in civic engagement.

But ADA regulations are not always met because corporations and businesses do not want to pay additional expenses. Sheila Carroll, the president and senior partner of Carroll & Associates, has seen many violations of ADA compliance.

“When a client is hit with a complaint, there is a problem at hand,” Carroll said. “My comment always is — I know you don’t want to hear it, but none of this is new. I’m sorry that your doorway is not wide enough or your elevator buttons aren’t low enough. As your lawyer, I need to tell you that there is an issue and it’s in everybody’s best interest to fix it. There’s no excuse.”

Though it meets some resistance, accessible design is now a standardized expectation. In her experience, Carroll has found lawsuits to be an extremely effective bar to a landowner’s power and said necessary changes are generally made to preexisting structures that don’t comply with ADA standards.

Accessible design has undoubtedly improved maneuverability for the disabled community. But what accessible design has traditionally lacked is artful and creative planning — functional designs that also had their own aesthetic appeal. Integrating practicality and beauty is the exact mission of universal design.

“There’s accessible design that’s code, that’s regulatory, that’s civil rights,” said Chris Downey, a San Francisco-based architect and architecture lecturer at UC Berkeley. “Universal design is about an attitude of design. It would, at a minimum, incorporate aspects of what’s required by ADA, but would likely take it well beyond.”

Downey lost his sight in 2008 and has since shifted his architectural focus to designing for the blind. His recent designs have been implemented in the Lighthouse for the Blind in San Francisco and the Independent Living Resource Center of San Francisco. Downey believes that creating a stimulating and appealing visual environment is crucial to his work.

“The majority of the legally blind have some sight, so the visual environment becomes very important, even on a functional level,” he said, “The amount of light, type of light, colors and contrast in the space all become extremely important.”

When Downey begins the building planning process, he considers how a space can be used by the broadest number of people in the most unified way. Just because an individual is disabled does not mean he is only interested in entering a building. The space needs to be both pleasant and desirable for him and delightful for caregivers, family members and colleagues.

Downey contends that are are simple ways that entire cities can incorporate universal design to benefit those with and without disabilities.

“Along Market Street in San Francisco, there’s brick everywhere,” he said. “If there were a change of material, something people with disabilities could feel in the ground that is distinct, the approach to the stairs down to BART could be easily recognized.”

Downey also wants to transform car-dominant suburbia. He said that if a city were designed for the blind, it would be pedestrian-friendly, with smaller streets and more generous sidewalks. In embracing this kind of planning, current efforts to reduce energy reliance would be supported, yielding a healthier, more sustainable environment.

Yet the type of design Downey described is neither as idyllic nor distant as one might imagine. Hop on BART for five minutes and one will find a universal design mecca, the Ed Roberts Campus, or ERC. Nestled atop the Ashby BART station, ERC is a transit-oriented center promoting independence for the disabled through the resources of agencies and organizations.The building was established in 2011 in memory of Edward V. Roberts, a former UC Berkeley student and pioneering activist of the independent living movement.

ERC revolves around a two-story, bright red ramp that spirals up the center of the space, enabling disabled people to reach the second level without the use of an elevator or stairs.

“(The entrance) illustrates how architectural accessibility for disabled people can be dramatically beautiful,” said Marsha Saxton, a lecturer in disability studies at UC Berkeley and the director of research and training with the World Institute on Disability, a public policy center housed within the campus.

A fountain on one end of the atrium serves to assist those with sensory impairments. In hearing the pleasant sound of water flowing, individuals can orient themselves in the building, and immediately know where they are in reference to the source of sound.

Upon visiting ERC with one of his classes, Downey learned that people with severe disabilities who work in Oakland and the East Bay commute to ERC on BART just to use their bathrooms. Bathroom doors in ERC can be operated hands-free by using a smartphone as a keypad or by running the footrest of a wheelchair into a push bar. A lift is also available to help individuals transfer independently from their wheelchairs to the toilet.

“It’s crazy that you have to use BART to go the bathroom!” Downey said. “But it creates accessibility at a level for people who might otherwise need an attendant but can be far more independent because of the facilities.”

What Saxton finds both fascinating and frustrating about ERC is its way of revealing particular stigmas surrounding disability. She said there is an awkwardness stemming from disability taboos that inhibit us from becoming informed and making friends across the lines of discrimination. Though many ERC events are open to the entire community, some people believe that ERC ought to belong solely to those who are disabled, as if it were a separatist community. ERC has done its part in eliminating physical barriers — now, Saxton believes, it is time for everyone to take part in dismantling social barriers.

“We welcome everyone to learn about disability — either because they have one themselves, or just because they need to know more about the world,” Saxton said.

Disability is inevitable and innate, ingrained in the idiosyncrasies that make us all human. But so, too is ability, unfettered and unanimous. Universal design imagines a world in which every individual is enabled to find his element, to explore his talents and to surprise even himself. If we dare the world long enough, we will find that it is the sum of our atomic aptitudes that yields a universe of possibility.

Annie Pill is a staff writer for The Weekender. Contact her at [email protected]

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