In Dialogue in Dever: “The Art of Access”

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When we think of the term “accessibility” of space, depending on your profession, this term might conjure up diverse definitions and perceptions.

As an architect, accessibility is often quickly taken from broad considerations of public networks, access, and inclusive user experience to the minute details dictated by Chapter 11 of the International Building Code.  It is through the lens of Chapter 11 that parameters associated with accessible dimensions, heights, clearances, slopes, circulation paths, and restroom counts (among many other important building features and considerations) are outlined for incorporation into building designs.

For an emerging professional, Chapter 11 can be a bit intimidating at times, as it feels as if only time, professional experience, and repeat exposure to code reviews, discussions, and resulting interpretations might help young professionals form a more holistic understanding of creating code-compliant, “accessible” space.

Despite my accumulating years of time and experience with Chapter 11, I recently attended and participated in an event in Denver, “The Art of Access,” that radically changed the way I think about the term “accessibility,” as it relates to public space and the built environment.

Organized by the inspiring, passionate Executive Director at VSA Colorado/Access Gallery, Damon McLeese, and supported by Imagine 2020: Denver’s Cultural Plan, the event was prefaced with the following description:

“[The Art of Access] is a day long dialogue about access, inclusion and community.  Fifty-six million people, nearly 20% of the American population, have some form of disability.  While much has changed since the 1990 signing of the Americans with Disabilities Act, deficits remain concerning inclusion and access in the arts.  This day long symposium is designed to bring educators, administrators, architects, designers, artists and concerned citizens together to how best to ensure full participation and engagement in the arts and culture for persons with disabilities.”

Sessions included moderated discussions, panels, and interactive workshops related to Access and Architecture, Communication of Inclusion, Low Sensory Program, Art and Creative Aging, Audio Description, and Tactile Tours.

Perhaps what was most surprising is that this forward-thinking event was the first of its kind in Denver.

The 100+ attendees represented a broad range of professional and personal backgrounds and experiences.  Everyone in the room was tangibly excited by the opportunity to learn and participate in a candid dialogue regarding engagement in arts and culture-related organizations for persons with disabilities.

Despite the many different perspectives represented at the event, what was amazing was the shared enthusiasm, importance, and consistency in the themes of the conference.  My biggest take-away was the reinforcement of the inherent idea that access is not about codes, regulations, or special treatment.   It is about creating understanding and a sense of empathy for various individuals’ needs, and responding with designs, programming, and opportunities that are built on the foundation of universal inclusion.

As a participant in a panel regarding access as it relates to public art and space, I spoke from the perspective of an architect, public art committee member, and cultural advocate invested in Denver’s continued development of culturally-rich, universally-accessible public space.

My talk focused on how public spaces, as physical extensions of public artwork, have the potential to become celebrated markers within the fabric of a city, woven together with culture and a sense of shared, inclusive identity.

Giving this talk was a great opportunity to delve deeper into research regarding contemporary “inclusive urban design” methods, as well as the growing practice of applying the process of design-thinking through empathetic design to generate design solutions that consider both the macro (the urban scale) as well as the equally as important micro (individual user experience.)

A small part of a much broader and more important discussion, events like these continue to fuel my sense of excitement and optimism for Denver’s future. It’s hard to truly portray how rich the conversations were, and how dynamic and thought-provoking the talks by various Denver-based organizations were.  From the RedLine Gallery’s “Reach Studio” that provides art classes and entrepreneurial opportunities for Denver’s past and present homeless population to Djamila Ricciardi’s “Tactile Tours” of Denver, in which she provides public art tours that are based on senses other than sight, people are doing amazing things to broaden the definition of inclusive design and programming.

Creating civic, inclusive space and programming in a rapidly-urbanizing city is no small feat, and this event demonstrated the need and enthusiasm for various constituent groups to be provided with opportunities for increased dialogue and education with and from persons with disabilities, with hopes of generating more inclusive and thoughtful design solutions as well as cultural and professional opportunities.

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