Truly inclusive spaces are designed for accessibility
Enter a fast food restaurant and often you’ll be faced with a sea of tall tables and chairs, sometimes immovable and secured to the ground. It’s a design choice that makes architect Karen Braitmayer feel unwelcome.
“I sit in a wheelchair, and that is not a place that makes me feel like I can stay,” she says. Without access to the table top, Braitmayer can’t comfortably chat with friends, or sit and eat a meal at the same level as them.
Many people don’t have to think twice about walking into a restaurant, workplace, healthcare facility, or school. But if accessible design isn’t considered when a space is built, these spaces can be challenging, and ultimately exclusionary for those with disabilities.
As founder and managing principal at Studio Pacifica, Braitmayer and her team of accessibility consultants work with architects and contractors to create barrier-free interiors that are inclusive, welcoming spaces for everyone.
And she finds that sharing personal examples — like that of the restaurant — helps design and built environment teams understand disability needs through the lens of her own lived experience.
While inclusion is critical in design and construction these days, Braitmayer believes accessibility should be part of the DE&I conversation as well. “‘Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion’ should really be ‘Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Accessibility. Those are all wrapped up together.”
After all, how can you say you’ve built an equitable and inclusive environment that meets the needs of diverse occupants, if people with disabilities can’t get through doors or otherwise fully engage with the space?
A multi-industry shift towards building more inclusive space
Most designers, developers, and construction teams today want to invest in a build process and outcome that invites communities who’ve historically been excluded, to experience a more comfortable and inclusive built environment.
So how does accessibility fit in this conversation?
Braitmayer thinks accessible design has come a long way in the past three decades since the federal American with Disabilities Act (ADA) was passed. But there’s still plenty of room for improvement to create a world with spaces that are fully accessible to people with disabilities, as well as those who are neurodivergent.
For instance, using a public restroom is a universal human requirement. But it’s still not unusual to enter a restroom and find all amenities in the space have been standardized, says Braitmayer.
“All the sinks are the same height, all the paper towel dispensers are the same height. But why do we do that? When humans come in different sizes and shapes, we could have a low paper towel dispenser and a high paper towel dispenser. We could have a soap dispenser that’s close to the edge of the sink, and one that’s back on the mirror.”
To design and construct whole buildings that enable a variety of human experiences, the ADA and state building codes with accessibility considerations are a good place to begin planning.
But to ensure you are creating truly inclusive spaces, you need to look beyond these legislated guidelines and consult with accessibility advocates and advisors as well, Braitmayer says.
Accessibility laws and codes are just a starting point
Braitmayer describes the ADA as groundbreaking when it was first established in 1990.
As “one of America’s most comprehensive pieces of civil rights legislation that prohibits discrimination and guarantees that people with disabilities have the same opportunities as everyone else to participate in the mainstream of American life,” the act outlines comprehensive standards for accessible design, according to the U.S. Department of Justice.
Three decades later, the ADA continues to provide important design protocols. However, as design standards evolve over time — to meet ever-changing needs and enhance accessibility provisions — fresh, new guidelines are more likely to be reflected in state building codes, because they are updated more frequently.
For instance, “you’ll see in upcoming [state] codes, there’s some great new language around adult changing tables; and in large occupancy buildings, around the increased space to accommodate a person who uses a mobility aid,” Braitmayer says. “The footprint on the floor is going to grow in the next edition.”
If interpreting all these rules and guidelines seems complicated, you’re not alone in thinking that. That’s where accessibility specialists like Braitmayer come in, helping to decode regulatory requirements.
But design standards will only take you so far if you want to build an environment that meets the unique needs of those set to inhabit the space.
“Accessibility should be done from the beginning,” Braitmayer says. “You don’t get your best result when you use it as a checklist, after you’ve designed the building.”
Whether you’re constructing an educational campus, medical facility, workplace, or public building, Braitmayer advises designers to consult early with disability community activists who can explain the differing needs of future occupants.
“Sometimes when you design something that’s code-compliant, it might not also really be fully inclusive,” Braitmayer says. “And in order to do that, I encourage design teams to include people with lived experience on the design team.”
She also encourages making it easier for people with disabilities or those who are neurodiverse to actually join the design team, so they can identify solutions to challenges or pain points they face every day.
In addition to following the right accessibility guidelines and working with a team that has diverse lived experiences, designers and architects can also opt for construction systems that enable the smooth creation of more accessible interiors.
If key interior components such as walls, flooring, and doors are modular, they can easily be adapted — an important consideration for architects who need to modify existing space. A construction system that incorporates all of these elements makes it simpler to update an office, medical facility, or public building with accessible features. And it ensures future changes are easy to make as well.
DIRTT’s wall assemblies are an example of a modular system that supports adaptability. Removable wall panels can be swapped out without cutting drywall or repainting. This allows updates to happen with little mess. Small changes to accommodate the height of attached equipment or accessories can be done quickly and without disruption to the occupants. Larger adjustments to the floor plate to enable mobility or create a safe, separated space can be completed by reusing existing wall assemblies, saving time and raw material costs.
Choice is key when creating accessible and inclusive spaces
When Braitmayer talks about the downsides of a generic restroom with sinks and dispensers all the same height, her overarching accessible design solution is to provide options.
To meet varied disability needs, give people “choices so that they can find the space or sink or fixture or accessory that works for them.” Or throughout a building, add features such as touchless, power doors as an option for those using mobility aids.
Some of her projects also provide “touchdown spaces,” where occupants with sensory-related concerns — not uncommon for people who are neurodiverse — can go and spend a couple of hours in a quiet, dim, or isolated (visually or audibly) environment.
And choice can extend beyond what you might traditionally think of as accessibility features. Braitmayer says her clients are now not only seeking a design that is accessible, but also accommodating.
Essentially, some are asking for both accessibility and DE&I considerations to be met simultaneously. And in doing so, serve overlapping needs.
For instance, many companies or organizations seeking accessible restrooms also want those spaces to be all-gender, and thus more inclusive, Braitmayer says. Moving away from a male versus female restroom approach requires more than knocking down a few walls and connecting two conventionally gendered spaces, though.
“How do you take that binary system and change it, so that it really feels like it’s an all-gender restroom? Because if it really looks like it’s binary, it doesn’t feel right,” she explains. “And that’s not necessarily about accessibility, right? It is, but it isn’t.”
In this scenario, accessibility complements designing for diversity, equity, and inclusion, which can be a more complex undertaking but ultimately better serves people with varying needs.
Braitmayer’s approach to accessible design is all about embracing an inclusive “us” perspective, rather than a “them” outlook, which is a more exclusionary framing of disability communities (as well as neurodivergent and other marginalized groups).
“At some point, anybody can join the disability community, through illness, accident, aging, who knows? And if it’s not you, it’s going to be a family member or somebody that you love. So you’re doing this for us,” she says.