July 21, 2020
Karen Braitmayer, Founder of Studio Pacifica, Weighs in on Accessible Design
As the ADA turns 30, the Seattle architect reflects on inclusivity and how we can make strides to truly design for all.
Karen Braitmayer, a disabled architect, consultant, and volunteer, brings her unique life experiences to Studio Pacifica, the Seattle‐based practice she founded in 1993. With deep expertise in code compliance and regulations, Braitmayer and her team work with architectural firms like Olson Kundig and Perkins and Will to help create barrier‐free civic, residential, and commercial buildings. Studio Pacifica has served as consultants on notable projects ranging from the Space Needle renovation to the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation Discovery Center and student housing at Smith College. Braitmayer was appointed by President Barack Obama to the United States Access Board, a position she still holds today.
As we mark the 30th anniversary of the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) this month, we spoke to her about how far we’ve come, and how we can continue to advance accessible design in the built environment.
Anna Zappia: This month marks the 30th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). We’ve made strides since 1990, but there’s a lot more work to do. In terms of accessible design, where do we need to improve?
Karen Braitmayer: I grew up pre‐ADA, and I am aware of the significant number of changes that have happened. I grew up in a community that did not have curb cuts on the sidewalks, or accessible parking, or movie theaters with spaces for wheelchair users to sit. I totally value living in a community where I can reasonably predict that I can go to the shopping mall, find a place to park, get in the door, and go to the food court and use the bathroom.
I live in an urban environment and a community that is continually having new construction. So there’s an advantage there. I know certainly there are other communities and cities that don’t have the renovation and the new construction, and so are faced with older infrastructure. But I do see a lot of change across the country.
We need more research around the more complex mobility devices that are available now, and how they interact with our environment. Certainly, there are places in the law that could be updated to reflect new technology. I think it’s always going to be a work in progress, because so much of our community changes over time, and the regulations need to reflect those changes.
AZ: How does your particular disability inform your work?
KB: My disability is called Osteogenesis Imperfecta. I use a wheelchair for mobility and I have profound hearing loss, so I wear a bilateral hearing aid. I think lived experience gives me a different lens on the world than some of my architecture peers. In my work as a consultant it’s important that I’m not thinking only from my perspective as a wheelchair user. I spend a lot of energy getting to know people who have different disability needs than I do, so that I can understand what their world is like and what features are better for them.
AZ: What type of research do you conduct for each project?
KB: It depends on who the user of the building is going to be. If the project is a private home, then of course, I am going to spend a lot of time and energy focusing on the individuals who will live in that home, and getting to know what the family’s needs are. If the project is a company building, I want to talk to all of the employee groups and find out what their needs are. I spend a lot of time asking people questions and getting nosy. Understanding the community that will live with or benefit from the project is important.
I think that there needs to be information developed on what makes an accessible community engagement event. We need to outline the things you need to do in order to reach out to the disability community so that they know that their input is valued. We also need information about how to make the event itself accessible so that people can effectively communicate their thoughts and feel welcome. There’s an opportunity here to make a more effective effort.
AZ: What are some of the ways we can include the disabled community in the design process?
KB: I think that if we increase the number of designers with lived experience in disability, we are going to alter the output and what we’re creating. We need to reach out to young people who are interested in architecture and happen to have a disability, and find ways to support them in their process. Architecture schools need to help young disabled people in their quest to become architects. That’s going to change the work and how projects are designed.
One way to increase the accessibility of our projects is to change the lens of the architect. We can also engage more consultants with lived experience. There are a number of very good accessibility consultants across the country with lived experience who I think can help to ensure that projects are the best they can be.
AZ: How can we all play a role in changing the way we perceive accessible design?
KB: I think that magazines like Metropolis can do a great service to the disability community by publishing beautiful pictures of accessible projects instead of just pictures of buildings that might not be accessible. Why are there no beautiful pictures of ramps? I think the magazines have an opportunity, because if more images were in front of designers of this kind of beautiful accessibility, it will inspire architects to design things that can be really useful to everybody.
I think that the profession could change the images that they use to show what an architect looks like. They are working hard on making it apparent that there are diverse architects, and they are certainly trying to provide images of people of color and women. And I’d like to see images of architects with disabilities as well. You know, if you were a high school student and you opened up a brochure and could see yourself in it, that would make architecture a great deal more appealing, wouldn’t it?
You may also enjoy “Why Are There So Few Great Accessible Buildings?“
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