Bad Design and Bad Attitudes

The intersection of thoughtless design and surly workers can lead to nightmarish experiences in public spaces.

This is the story of how I got to Rio, the most blessedly beautiful harbor city in the Americas. The afternoon of my departure from Lower Manhattan is marked by one of the most persistent gridlocks in recent memory. This stroke-inducing ride to JFK ends at Terminal 4, which has no directional signs (or if they exist, I don’t see them). I just make my flight as the plane door is about to close.

After takeoff the captain announces that we will be in São Paulo at 6:30 the next morning. São Paulo? My ticket said nothing about a stopover, and the young man who checked me in didn’t mention it. Am I on the wrong flight? I look at the map and see what looks like a 250-mile cab ride. Damn, I just recovered from the excruciating ride to the airport, the disturbing sight of everyone stripping at security, and the breathless dash to the gate. My anxiety meter hits another high.

I ring for the attendant, but no one comes. They’re too busy taking the duty-free cart around, which forces me to flag down a haughty man in uniform who assures me I’ll get to Rio but shares no further details. After nine hours of trying to sleep on a chair designed by someone who clearly flunked out of Ergonomics College, we land in São Paulo. At the gate a young man gives me a boarding pass to Rio, which says “free” where a seat assignment should be indicated and instructs me to take a right to Gate 20. But we just landed at Gate 22, and now I’m at 27. This cannot be right. There’s a crowd entering an unmarked gate. Everyone, it seems, knows where they’re going except me. Confusing wayfinding makes me feel idiotic—and makes us all feel disabled.

The unmarked door leads to a security check. We just got off the plane—how could I possibly have picked up a machine gun or machete in that desolate, badly signed hallway? Finally I see a sign for Gate 20. No flight postings anywhere, no airline personnel in sight, just a lot of people milling around confused. When an attendant arrives she grudgingly tells us that, yes, this is a flight to Rio and we can board without seat assignments. No microphone is used to make this announcement, so only a few of us hear it. The attendant calls for first-class passengers to board, and everyone rushes on, barging past the flimsy crowd-control ribbons protecting the gate.

On board my mood suddenly changes: I’m flying down to Rio as Fred and Ginger did in the Deco 1930s. Maybe my travel nightmare has come to an end. Upon landing in Rio “foreigners” are directed to their own line by a woman in a tight blouse wearing an official badge—no greeting, no famous Brazilian hospitality. Our line soon outnumbers that of the natives, but the few immigration booths designated for us are empty. We wait. In the distance I spy a small table where various forms are scattered. These must be meant for us to fill out, but there is no sign saying so. When I get to the table I pick up one of the forms in English and wonder, Why aren’t these forms in at least three of the major languages of the world at this busy international airport?

A young woman checks passports, but apparently not the papers we were supposed to fill out. When two men finally start working a booth they send back several foreigners who didn’t pick up immigration forms. Another young woman instructs people in wheelchairs, families with children, and the elderly to form a special line for quick service, now that the foreigners’ line has multiplied to a humming throng of 500. The immigration officer who handles my papers is working two cell phones, one of which rings constantly, and works his official rubber stamp without paying any attention to us, the foreigners.

At last I’m free to claim my luggage, but where? Only two flights are posted in baggage claim, and neither of them is mine. I wait at the wrong conveyer until I find this out when I show my boarding stub to an official-looking man. Bag in hand, I join tons of luggage pushed by hundreds of foreigners and natives who are now in one endless customs line.

Somewhere in the middle of this procession a live band plays a samba, and then the musicians disappear. By now I know that one of those forms I didn’t fill out was a customs declaration form. When I reach the harried customs inspector I try to explain, and he tries to find a form for me to fill out in English. He doesn’t have one either. In frustration he waves me on.

I’m finally in a comfortable cab with a courteous driver, but my tour of design and planning failures and social injustices isn’t complete yet. Traffic here is also gridlocked, so I have time to observe my surroundings. What I see is not the Rio of postcards but the one where real people live, in the kind of abject poverty that is the shame of the human race. In my hotel room—a pristine air-conditioned perch in the clouds with a panoramic view of Sugarloaf Mountain—I read an ominous warning in my guest packet: “Do not leave the hotel wearing jewelry or carrying expensive photo or video cameras. Prefer [sic] to leave the hotel in small groups.” This warning seems to be universal everywhere a huge and desperate underclass has grown up.

As I head downstairs—with its ramps for wheelchaired conference attendees and clear wayfinding—to learn about the human intersection of design and social justice, I wonder, How many of us in our air-conditioned rooms and gated communities think of the price paid by others for our luxuries? How many of us question these social inequalities? And if we question them, what are we ready to do about them?

The above is excerpted from my closing keynote address at “Designing for the 21st Century III,” an international conference on universal design held in Rio de Janeiro last December. On the 15th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), it behooves us to assess our universally frustrating experiences of the designed environment and resolve to alleviate them. The entire speech is available here.

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