Architecture and disability experience

Many followers of universal design will have critiqued the entry to Museum M in Leuven, Belgium as dangerous. Unfortunately, a Google image search on “universal design” includes images of this entry as examples of universal design. While this design might be architecturally creative, it is not architecturally inclusive or safe for everyone.

The entry steps to Museum M are mistakenly taken as an example of universal design. Consulting people with disability after construction revealed many concerns for safety.

Museum entrance with steps and ramp integrated. The tiles are a light colour and the way the light falls the whole thing looks very confusing. Architecture and disability.

An article by three Belgian researchers gives both sides of the design story. The classic design ideas and objectives of the architects, and the user experience. The article first discusses disability and the built environment from a justice perspective. They emphasise how architect’s human senses are not the same as everyone else. Museum M is used as a case study to explore the differing values of architects and users with disability.

“The descent before entering Museum M is supposed to symbolise its accessibility and openness to all people. When we mention this openness to Philip, he understands the idea, but for him it does not make
the museum more accessible.”

Entry to the museum where the sunlight makes the steps look like a flat white plane even to people with good vision.

The architect thought it a good idea if visitors didn’t have to separate at the entrance. He could see no problems for wheelchair users by crossing the ramp through the stairs. This design is sometimes called “stramps” With no kerbing to the ramp, wheelchair users would need to be careful not to run off the grade into the steps. Although some wheelchair users might find this workable, it is not the case for people who are blind.

What Charlotte and Philip said

Charlotte is a wheelchair user and Philip has a vision impairment: their experiences are at odds with the grandiose ideas of the architect. Philip understands the idea of the stramps but it does not make the museum more accessible for him. The break in the handrail to accommodate the ramp section means he doesn’t know where the next handrail is.

The colour of the entrance is also causing an obstacle. The white colour when the sun is shining onto the floor it looks like one flat surface. Philip can’t make out the steps and combining it with ramp makes it more confusing. Charlotte isn’t comfortable about entering either because the ramp is not entirely visible for wheelchair users.

The title of the article is Enriching our Understanding of Architecture Through Disability Experience. It was published in 2013 but is still relevant as an example of what happens when you don’t co-design.

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