Ending ‘separate but equal’ spaces

“That one is very disorienting,” says Kyu-ho Ahn, handing a visitor eyewear designed to simulate what it’s like to have macular degeneration. The low-vision goggles only allow vision at the outer edges of the eyes, forcing the wearer to turn their body sideways to view reading material, a store aisle, a bus doorway, or a large room, making daily navigation anything but simple.

The low-vision simulation eyewear are just one of a variety of research tools in Ahn’s winter term graduate seminar, “Inclusive Architecture and Design: Utilitarian Aesthetics.” Ahn is an assistant professor in interior architecture at the University of Oregon.

Ahn’s seminar aims to raise design students’ awareness of the needs of people with disabilities, but Ahn readily acknowledges he doesn’t have all the answers. “I know about ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) regulations, I know the numeric requirements, but I don’t really understand the background of those numbers, what’s the real issue behind that. So I needed someone to help guide me to see those kind of issues.”

Which is why Ahn asked Molly Rogers to be coinstructor for the seminar. Rogers, MArch ’11, is a member of Mobility International USA, which works across disability organizations. “I interact regularly with people with disabilities and the issues we all face, so I’m more familiar with other types of disabilities” besides the physical barriers that most people are aware of due to the ADA, which is responsible for the curb cuts, ramps, accessible bathrooms and other now-mainstream accommodations throughout the United States.

But most people aren’t aware of less-visible disabilities, including hearing impairment, advanced arthritis, autism, and low vision, all of which prevent many people from negotiating streets, public transit, businesses, and classrooms, and which can also impose social barriers. For example, Ahn cites research that found “when someone is limping, as you approach them you tend to avoid them, to walk far to the side. If they’re wearing a cast, that’s okay because they’re only temporarily disabled and you’re okay with it. But if it’s someone who clearly is permanently disabled, people go way out of their way to avoid them.”

Says Rogers, who uses a wheelchair, “Some people are unsure how to interact with (a disabled) person so they avoid it, possibly because they don’t want to do something ‘wrong’ or to hurt somebody” emotionally.

“That has to be changed,” Ahn says. “Usually the architects, designers, don’t see (disabled) individuals as a client or a peer, as someone you’re going to work with together. But the world has become so complex and diversified that we need to prepare our students for that.”

That starts with teaching ADA regulations, which Ahn says design students often protest. “Students tend to understand the ADA as a regulation they have to comply with, so they see ADA issues as obstacles to creativity. They tend to wait until the end to consider whether their design complies with ADA issues – ‘Oh, I don’t have a ramp, I have to add it.’ ‘Oh I don’t have a fire egress, I need to include it.’ ‘Oh I have to widen the ramp, that will distract, will interfere with my design concept.’ But they don’t want to change it. It’s always been a secondary issue and that’s a serious problem.”

Because the ADA has been around for a generation, professional designers are accustomed to meeting its requirements. But, as Ahn points out, “a building we design may satisfy the Americans with Disabilities Act standards, but our design response of passive code compliance may discriminate or segregate other users with a disability from ‘normal and abled majority individuals.’ Our designed spaces may create a statement of separate but ‘equal’ access.“

As an example, a restaurant may technically have fulfilled requirements for an accessible entrance, but it’s through a back or side door. “You get dressed up to go out to eat, you arrive at the place, there are stairs at the front door and they say ‘Oh, we’re accessible,’ and they take you around back, up the loading dock, past the trash, through the kitchen, and finally into the restaurant,” Rogers says. “It totally diminishes the experience you’re having. And it’s socially isolating to have to go through a separate entrance.”

Ahn likens the situation to the United States prior to the Civil Rights Act. “It’s the same sort of segregation that the U.S. used to have between white and black: ‘Equal’ access but different, separate.”

Given Ahn’s background in interior design and Rogers’ in architecture and product design (she also serves as adjunct instructor in UO’s Product Design Program), the duo wanted the course to go well beyond ADA standards. “We will advocate a notion that universal, inclusive design not only satisfies the intended functionality of the architecture but also strengthens its aesthetics for all users regardless of their disability or ability,” the course description states.

The class will be interactive, with field trips, guest lecturers, and engagement with community members that includes meetings to discuss and experience first-hand the reality and issues of being disabled while moving through daily life. Students will collaborate with Lane Independent Living Alliance (LILA), a Eugene-based regional nonprofit organization whose goal is to “help people with disabilities achieve as much choice, access, inclusion and independence as possible.”

So far, two guest lectures have been scheduled: January 9 with Eugene Organ of LILA, who will discuss new ADA regulations; and January 23, when Kijeong Jeon, of Chico State University, will discuss designed spaces for autism.

Ahn and Rogers hope the students’ research will result in universal access design guidelines for the new A&AA building. “Regulations only talk about numbers,” Ahn says. “What we’re trying to do is define what is their issue and disseminate those ideas more clearly so we can use those findings as design guidelines in all stages of the design process. Having those kind of design guidelines will be very beneficial for industry.” Ahn hopes students will disseminate their research findings by presenting papers at a national conference.

Rogers also hopes that students, through “an immersive experience will at least get one little switch in their mind that says ‘I’m not sure that I understand that.’ That will raise their awareness and involvement in creating a set of guidelines. That’s what we envision as the course outcome, a top-level set of guidelines looking at the issues that different groups of people experience in architectural spaces. We’ll give them a really visceral understanding of some of the issues.”

The seminar is funded by the Graduate Enhancement Fund by the Department of Architecture.

Story by Marti Gerdes