Beyond Compliance

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) is 15 years old this year. While much has changed for the better in the designed environment, much still needs to be done. We see too many designs—like those ubiquitous Braille signs on hotel room or restroom doors, without any help for the blind person on how to get […]

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) is 15 years old this year. While much has changed for the better in the designed environment, much still needs to be done. We see too many designs—like those ubiquitous Braille signs on hotel room or restroom doors, without any help for the blind person on how to get to these doors—that simply comply with ADA, but do not advance thinking about what makes an environment truly accessible. On Thursday, November 17, 2005, at Build Boston an interdisciplinary panel will discuss successful approaches to architecture and interiors, landscape and product design which accommodate people with many different abilities. The panel will include Jean Carroon AIA, LEED, Goody Clancy, Boston, Mass.; Kat Darula, Multi, Design for People LLC, East Providence, R.I.; Khipra Nichols, Rhode Island School of Design, Rumford, R.I.; Chris Matthews, Michael Van Valkenburgh, Cambridge, Mass.; and Valerie Fletcher, Adaptive Environments, Boston, Mass. Panel moderator and Metropolis editor in chief Susan S. Szenasy has caught up with Fletcher, a long time advocate of universal design, to find out how we’re doing.

Susan S. Szenasy: When I mention universal design to students they usually look puzzled and don’t have the vaguest idea what the term refers to. How would you explain universal design to all those young students and to everyone puzzled by the term?

Valerie Fletcher: I’m not surprised. There are still only pockets of awareness in U.S. design education. I find students more receptive with every passing year but there is not always support from faculty for more extensive exploration.

More from Metropolis

I do a lot of speaking to design students and always spend a good deal of time building a case for inclusive/universal design before I illustrate the concepts with images. I use all of the different terms to describe the concept—universal, inclusive, life-span, design-for-all—and provide a definition: a framework for the design of places, things, information, communication, and policy that focuses on the user, on the widest range of people operating in the widest range of situations without special or separate design. Then I offer the mini-version: human-centered design of everything with everyone in mind. I use demographic data and tie together disability and aging and remind students of the most common conditions that cause limitation of function. They aren’t what the students expect for adults or kids. Back problems, heart disease, arthritis, learning disabilities, respiratory problems are so common that every student has a family member or neighbor or friend who shows symptoms of at least one of these.

Perhaps the biggest idea is borrowed from the World Health Organization’s new definition of disability that was approved by 191 member nations in 2002 after ten years of development. It describes disability as a contextual experience. Functional limitations are facts of the human experience but one is more or less disabled based upon the intersection of the person with the built-, product-, communication-, and information environments. Designers can choose to be facilitators of ability. I tell them about the international movement and the role of social attitude that drives interest in places like Brazil, Japan, and Western Europe. Increasingly, I describe the growing trend to integrate green and universal as two sides of the sustainable design vision. Environmental sustainability meets social sustainability.

Lastly, I emphasize the power of design to influence human experience. And I remind them that this is a young field that needs people who want to change the world. We talk about the opportunities for research, for cross-disciplinary projects, for being on the cutting edge. If we learn how to design for people at the outer edges of the spectrum, we’ve built knowledge that can improve everyone’s experience with our designs.

SSS: The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) is 15 years old this year. Have we become a kinder and gentler nation because this civil rights legislation—with universal design principles at its core—is on the books? Be tough in your analysis.

VF: The ADA was the world’s first substantive, codified affirmation of design as a civil right. It’s the floor upon which we build universal design in the U.S. There has been extraordinary progress. Most kids with disabilities attend school with everyone else. Most hotels, motels, restaurants, and retail stores have met at least the minimum requirements of the ADA. It is reasonable to expect accessible entrances, rest rooms, and accessible routes. Public transit is substantially improved though it remains deplorable in some cities, forcing extreme dependence for people with disabilities on separate and mostly unequal “paratransit”. Cities like San Francisco and
Portland have created attractive, seamless systems that minimize any limitations by people with disabilities and work beautifully for everyone. Air travel is made easier for all of us because of the ADA. Rolling luggage has become the norm over the last 15 years because we can expect accessible transitions throughout. In the best of them, verbal information is also visible in open captioning.

There’s progress, but compliance is too often met with a “just tell me what I have to do” attitude rather than embracing the spirit of the law. In any city in the country, sidewalk conditions are predictably a source of frustration. Curb cuts are missing or poorly designed. Brick and other heavily textured surfaces make people using wheelchairs—and moms pushing toddlers in strollers—miserable. The US Department of Justice mounted Project Civic Access in 1999 to respond to localities that had a pattern of non-compliance. Today there have been 134 settlement agreements with 128 localities in all 50 states, the District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico. There remain plenty of opportunities for critique.

Why? In any sector, and for any design discipline with responsibilities under the ADA, it is likely that the ADA is categorized in the same way as the plumbing code or the fire code. It’s a necessary evil that will diminish the quality of your design. Some of that attitudinal barrier is related to design education and continuing education where ADA instruction tends to be clustered with all of the other “code” issues. It is also fair to point out that the ADA scoping and dimensional requirements can be so challenging to decipher that it isn’t surprising they summon negative attitudes. It’s the unintended consequence of the ADA that legal obligations trump attention to the goal of social equity.

It’s also important to note that the ADA is limited in application and pays primary attention to accommodating the needs of a couple of types of disability in the built environment: people who use wheelchairs and people who are blind. For information and communication technology, the primary emphasis is on meeting the needs of people with sensory and learning-related disabilities.

But universal design is a way of thinking about all design to anticipate the widest diversity of potential users. No design can ever meet the needs of every potential user. However, universal design can reduce the need for special solutions. It can also ensure that the fit is a simpler and more reliable one with the assistive technology that some people will always need.

Universal design is an evolving knowledge base more in keeping with green design than the fixed standards of the ADA.

SSS: You and your organization, Adaptive Environments, have been advocating universal design for many years. What is your best accomplishment? What is your greatest disappointment?

VF: I often think of Adaptive Environments as a mix of shill and midwife for universal design. We try to generate interest in the conceptual wares of the field and assist in the birthing of converts to it.

Our greatest accomplishment is the slow but steady growth of interest. Every year there are more articles, more theses, more interest internationally in the role of universal design in planning, in urban design, in post-conflict and post-disaster development, in sectors like cultural institutions, religious communities, and public transit.

The greatest disappointment is more a fear than a disappointment. I believe that our knowledge to date has been concentrated in the areas most familiar to us from accessible design—people with mobility, strength, and dexterity limitations. Universal design can be interpreted as aesthetically-enhanced accessible design. That’s good, but I worry that the narrow focus misses the larger opportunity for universal design to be a significant driver of a revival of design research that explores the potential of going beyond anthropometrics and ergonomics. There is so much we don’t know.

Perhaps the most striking opportunity is to study design solutions that work better for brain performance. Can we design offices that minimize the impact of the aging workforce and give everyone a better shot at optimal performance? Can we design classrooms sufficiently flexible so that learning can be tailored to each student? Can we design cars that reduce the risk to aging drivers and inexperienced teens? Can we design homes that will support independence, pleasure, and dignity for a lifetime?

SSS: Why is OXO Good Grips, a decade-old design, still the prime example of universally functioning industrial design in the United States?

VF: It’s true that OXO Good Grips has an iconic role in universal design. It’s hard not to celebrate a product so ordinary and so pervasive that most every American has at least one. It’s been a tool for generating a lot of “Aha” moments.

There are many other products that integrate universal design features without ever using the term. The new medicine bottles at Target are a good example of universal design. Patricia Moore designed the new universally accessible light rail cars in Phoenix that should be on-line next year.

It’s a worthwhile exercise to go through retail stores or showrooms and write a list of universally designed products that incorporate the features but don’t identify themselves as universal design. It’s certainly not a majority of products but the proportion grows steadily. How much more quality we’d see if designers were trained to embrace it as intrinsic to good design!

SSS: Industrial design seems blind to concepts of universal access. If you agree with this observation, tell us why this is. If you disagree, explain.

VF: I understand the frustration. So much of what is celebrated in design flies in the face of usability.

But consider the Japanese. After the international conference in December of 2002, they created the International Association for Universal Design (IAUD). It is comprised of about 150 annual dues-paying corporate members, essentially all Japanese multi-national manufacturers. It includes Sony, Toto, Fujitsu, Panasonic, Toyota, Subaru. The aging of the Japanese population is the primary catalyst. Toyota has created a new matrix for ALL new cars that is both green and universal. The first car developed with the matrix is the RAUM, now in production in Japan but not yet imported.

In England the Design Council and the Department of Health created a system-wide, design-led approach to tackle patient safety in the National Health System in 2003. Roger Coleman, co-founder and director of the Helen Hamlyn Research Centre at the Royal College of Art (RCA) and one of the international leaders in universal/inclusive industrial design, was a key player. They looked at all aspects of the system but paid keen attention to product design. Recently, the RCA announced the next stage of the national healthcare initiative and Roger Coleman will head a new project on inclusive healthcare design and research.

SSS: The sustainability movement tends to focus on the environment mostly, leaving social justice issues out of its concerns. What is your best advice on how to integrate the two, now often separate movements, into one good design movement?

VF: I am convinced that we must focus as much attention as possible on promoting sustainable design as comprised of environmental, social, and economic sustainability. Universal design is a very good fit as a central concept of social sustainability. The UN has already accepted it as part of the definition used in Department of Economic and Social Affairs. The international development banks are beginning to agree. I would argue that universal design needs the same investment in developing specifications and performance measures and investing in research. As well, the same attention to dynamic, open-ended opportunity makes sense and could capture the imagination of designers who want to change the world.

Recent Projects