Access Compliance: Design Barrier or Design Culture?

August 16, 2011

There are many aspects of architecture and the design process that we take for granted as being good practice or design.   We generally tend to focus on volume and scale, building materials and systems, on making an architectural statement about our clients and our selves.  Interestingly, inclusive design (aka, access compliance) is not part of most designer’s mindset or design culture. For most of us, it’s about meeting code requirements, having to make a conscious and concerted effort, and too often choosing to provide the absolute minimum standards because “it’s too intrusive and disruptive to good design” or “it adds too much to the project costs.”

Many proponents have tried to make the concept of inclusive design more palatable by calling it “universal design” and pointing out how ramps and accessible parking spaces and elevators and wider doors make it easier for mothers pushing babies in strollers.  Seriously?

Here are five reasons why inclusive design should be a natural integrated part of your practice and why you should understand that ADA standards are simply minimal guidelines, not good practice:

  1. Thirty-six million Americans have at least one disability.  That’s 12% of our total population or 1 in every 9 people.  There is not a day when I’m driving around doing errands that I don’t see at least one person in a wheelchair or using a walker or crutches, a white cane or is accompanied by a service dog.
  2. The disabled population is composed of people of all ages. In addition, being disabled is more than about being confined to a wheelchair. Disabilities requiring environmental attention involve a variety of impairments including vision, hearing, cognitive, emotional, motor function, as well as heart and lung ailments all of which are the result of injury, illness, disease, aging, or birth defect.   Just passing me on the street or in a store you would never know that I have two disabilities. I’ve had low vision since I was in the fifth grade. Fortunately, it’s mostly correctable by contact lenses or glasses, but I have a hard time seeing when the light is too low or too glaring.  I also have a hard time hearing out of one ear due to scar tissue from ear infections when I was a child.  I have a healthy appreciation for good lighting and acoustics!
  3. At some point in our lives, 85% of us will have to deal with a disability. It should come as no surprise that the percentage of people with disabilities increases with age: 5 percent of children 5 to 17 have disabilities; 10 percent of people 18 to 64 have disabilities; and 37 percent of adults 65 and older have disabilities. The chances are that at some point in your life you will have a disability or you will know someone who is disabled.
  4. The majority of people with impaired motor function use crutches or walkers, not wheelchairs. Crutches require more space and many design elements that are more accommodating to wheelchairs are hazardous to people on crutches or using walkers.  Access compliance codes are directed at wheelchair use, which is not the best criteria for making design decisions that are inclusive.
  5. As of January 1, 2011 the first of the Baby Boomer generation turned 65. There are 75 million Baby Boomers. By 2030, 18% of the population will be 65 or older. As we grow older, we are at greater risk of becoming disabled. According to disabled-world.com, people living in countries with life expectancies over 70 years of age, spend an average of 8 years, or 11.5 per cent of their life span, living with a disability.

For most people with disabilities, the biggest issue for them is being able to live a safe and independent life. The biggest barrier to that goal is the physical environment.  Having access to public accommodations, whether it’s a doctor’s office or an opera house, is a basic right not a privilege. Architects have a responsibility to ensure that all public access buildings, whether publicly or privately owned, are accessible to everyone regardless of whether they are disabled or not.

For many designers, ADA poses an unpleasant challenge they consider to a barrier to good design. For others, inclusive design is a lifestyle, a part of their design culture they consider to be essential to good design.  Where do you stand?

To learn more about inclusive design, we invite you to visit our website at www.practitionersresource.com/ResourcePages/InclusiveDesign.html.  We also offer a number of continuing education courses about ADA and designing for disabilities.


Census Bureau News – Facts for Features: Anniversary of Americans with Disabilities Act: July 26.

U.S. Census Bureau. Age Data of the United States.Older Americans, 2010. Federal Interagency Forum on Aging Related Statistics.


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