A week and a half ago, I suffered a back injury. I don’t want get too detailed because it will make me feel older than I already do, but in short, I was restricted to a wheelchair for a day. To make matters a bit more complicated, I was in a strange city staring down air travel to get back toDenver. I was in a tight spot. It was in those couple of hours that I got a brief glimpse into an aspect of architecture and design that is often overlooked; accessibility.
It might be because I am in school and removed from some of the rigors of practice, but for me, accessibility is a basic understanding of ANSI A117.1 applied to a few aspects of a building; bathrooms, automatic door operators, elevators, etc. In a studio environment, I am typically not designing specifically for accessibility, but merely accommodating the law. To be honest, this requirement is an application that I more than occasionally chafe at. For example, a recent studio project included a good amount of grade change along the length of the building. For the particular scheme I developed, stairs were by far the simplest solution to deal with the grade. However, it was an exhibition space that needed to be accessible and I needed to adjust. To me, the most telling thing about this predicament was that the need to include an accessible access was something that I was bothered by, whereas I had no problem accepting and dealing with myriad other restrictions on the building; basic details including minimum insulation values for walls or minimum window opening area to meet natural ventilation requirements. Elements of the building that had arguably just as big an impact on the design were dealt with and incorporated whereas the inclusion of ramps seemed to stick out above the rest.
After just the briefest of stays in a wheelchair, I am re-evaluating my attitude toward accessibility and gaining some insight into the value and importance of design professionals. Before this experience I knew the importance of accessibility only as reflected by regulations mandating accessibility, but I have come to realize it is much more than that. It is about providing equal access to our buildings to everyone. It is a question put to designers of how all members of the community get from here to there. It is our responsibility to answer this question with vigor and creativity, not as an afterthought to design.
It is here that our role as designers is evident; where it is shown to be both required and needed. We are responsible for designing accessible spaces. We need to know the codes but more importantly, we must actively strive to understand the experience of those with limited mobility and seek to create equal access to the built environment for the disabled. The guidelines provided by the codes are just that; guidelines. In the same sense that architects seek to go beyond the minimum energy efficiency requirements outlined by the various codes, we should seek to go beyond these minimum requirements for accessibility. By designing accessible spaces, we are fulfilling our professional responsibility and showing our worth.