Apr 05, 2016
THEME: Point of View

Setting the Stage for Universal Design


I never found the word particularly intimidating. Probably because, as a French Canadian, I read this word and associated it with the notion of “abileté” (i.e. skills) rather than opportunity. Thus, living with a disability or being disabled simply means not possessing certain skills. Whether you lack the skills required to move like Jagger or those required to see is irrelevant. We all learn to use the abilities we have to compensate for those we don’t. In this context, aren’t we all disabled?

Disabled: physically or mentally impaired in a way that substantially limits activity.

It may also be that the notion of limitation, too often associated with the word disabled, is foreign to me. Much like how people regret not speaking Arabic until they are thrown into a client meeting in the Middle East, I never regret not having the ability to walk until I am presented with a set of stairs and no alternative. Only then do I start feeling “limited.” For instance, you would be astonished by the number of architectural practices located in attics, basements, or upper stories of walk-up buildings. Even some of the largest firms do not offer accessible environments. As a result, despite my qualifications, I can never aspire to work amongst some of my favorite designers. Not because of my body – which, in the right context, would move through space seamlessly – but because of my environment. And that is an essential nuance to make, for as long as we blame the body for being different, rather than recognize the design for being limited, we endlessly perpetuate the errors of the past.

But I am one of the lucky ones since being trained as an architect means having a backstage pass to the concert of our lives. Put another way, architects and other designers of the built environment set the stage onto which we live our lives. I find this message particularly powerful. Not so much because it comforts my ego and validates me as a designer, but because as a user living with a disability, it relieves me from the blame. How can I be guilty of being different if the world was not designed with me in mind? How can I carry the weight of needing “accommodation” when a building was made in such a way that it excluded me in the first place?

Figure 1: Design based on a set of data, Modular, Fondation Le Corbusier

Figure 1: Design based on a set of data, Modular, Fondation Le Corbusier

Our built environment is not the way it is because it has to be. It is the way it is because we make it so. We choose to make it inclusive or not. We choose to design for a multitude of skills or to focus on only a few.

I am fortunate to know this, thanks to my backstage pass. Unfortunately, not everyone is a VIP…

The good news is, you are!

You, sitting on the other side of this conversation, you are a VIP. And you can make a difference: first, by never undermining your role and responsibility when it comes to “setting the stage onto which we live our lives;” then, by entering and reorienting the conversation held around universal design.

Too often nowadays, I hear people describing how unfair it is for those of us living with a disability to not be able to enjoy the wonderful spaces created for those living without one. The injustice to me is not that I don’t have access to spaces designed for “most people” but rather that, for decades now, our effort has solely been focused on developing designs based on ‘standards.’ In addition, we have further constrained the definition of design by equating “standard” with a limited set of data.

Modernity, of course, has both caused and propagated this trend. By using the tools of the Industrial Revolution, modern thinkers were able to reposition design from the very exclusive world of the elite to the larger realm of the mass. Regrettably, however, the intellectual breakthrough could only be as sophisticated as the tools it was based on, and in the case of modern design the tools heavily relied on standardization. Although design now is available to most people, it does not accurately reflect anyone’s reality.

Figure 2: A definition of design based on tools from the Industrial Era, Eames chairs

Figure 2: A definition of design based on tools from the Industrial Era, Eames chairs

Fortunately, we are far past the limitations of the Industrial Era and now have access to the opportunities of a new revolution. With the tools offered today by digital practice and fabrication, we are no longer bounded by the economic benefits of standardization and are permitted to expand, once again, the concept of design from a limited set of data to an infinite number of possibilities. We are in a position to not only focus our attention on the common characteristics shared by humanity, but also celebrate its diversity.

Under such circumstances, isn’t the word “disabled” significantly less intimidating?


Figure 3: A definition of design based on tools from the Digital Era, Rhode Island School of Design, Office DA.

Figure 3: A definition of design based on tools from the Digital Era, Rhode Island School of Design, Office DA.

Just like the Industrial Revolution led to the Modern Era and a ‘democratic’ definition of design, I believe that the Digital Revolution has opened the doors to a new era from which can emerge a truly “universal” notion of design. A question remains though: “How will you contribute to the conversation?”

  1. Gavin Schaefer
    5:25 pm on April 7, 2016 | Reply

    It’s true, if we can model earthquakes, solar gain, crowds, and anything else we can imagine, why aren’t we modelling for Universal Design?

    Truly it’s a great time for the profession to start revisiting this issue, now that we have the tools to analyze and fabricate that we didn’t before.

    Thanks for this timely perspective!

  2. Eve Edelstein Eve Edelstein
    6:25 pm on April 25, 2016 | Reply

    Beautifully expressed!! Let’s insist on design for the 95% … That is, the continuum of human expression, function, need and desires.

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