Can you keep practising as an architect after you go blind? The answer is Yes. This is Chris Downey’s experience. With a few work-arounds and new tools he says he is better at his job now. He found a way of getting tactile versions of drawings and developed his own tools for making drawings. He has been a campaigner for a universal design approach to the built environment ever since. CBS News has a story about him talking about his approach to work and life, including playing baseball with his son. Downey covers a lot of issues with grace and humour. His TED talk is very popular and there is a transcript of the talk. Being blind doesn’t mean giving up on life. For Downey it was discovering new adventures.
It’s often said that universally designed dwellings need extra space. Designing accessible studio units puts that myth to bed. A project consisting of four modest, high-quality dwellings are designed to adapt as the needs of the occupants change. According to Studio Bright, the units are designed to accommodate Gold Livable Housing standards. The second living or study space can be closed-off to become a second bedroom for a caregiver or visitor. This project aims to help women out of the private rental market into a home of their own.
Other desirable design features are not forsaken in this universal design approach. Each unit is designed to catch natural light and is set in thoughtful landscaping. The four required car parking spaces are flexible areas for communal outdoor space. Fruit treas and other plantings help foster a sense of community. The L-shaped units can be arranged in different ways, which means this model can be rolled out on other sites.
The UK television program Grand Designs hosted by Kevin McCloud rarely shows any home that has accessible elements unless it is specifically for a client with a disability. On the Grand Designs Facebook page, McCloud visits a kitchen that almost anyone would admire. He wheels himself around the kitchen with the owner and shows some fascination with the design. The owner said, “It’s the environment that makes you feel disabled”. A fair call. Have a look at the features and see what you think.
There is a longer newspaper article that provides more detail. However, all does not end well. Apparently the owner and his wife decided to separate. Consequently, another newspaper article has the home for sale a month after it was completed. But this one has lots of pictures. It just looks like a spacious home with nothing “disabled” about it.
The real issue is that wheelchair users are left with no choice but to build to their own specifications because there is nothing available on the market that will remotely match their requirements. That is, if they can afford it. The last article on the sale also shows how building a new home is no easy road and takes it toll on relationships. That’s regardless of any kind of ability or disability.
The Braille Institute of America has won the Fast Company Graphic Design Awardfor developing a font suitable for people with low vision – as well as everyone else. On first glance it doesn’t look much different to other sans serif fonts. But the tweaks make a difference to legibility and comprehension. The title of the font is Atkinson Hyperlegible. People who are blind early in life will likely use Braille. But those who lose their sight later in life probably won’t. New technologies are available to this larger group that enable them to retain their independence in everyday activities. The style and size of font is part of the Braille Institute of America staying relevant as the world changes.
This is about language. An article in The Guardian reports on a survey that found one third of British people admit they have discriminated against others because of their age. The SunLife report, Ageist Britain, highlights casual ageism and the impact it has on everyone. But it is ingrained in everyday language. It seems younger people think that life after 50 must be ‘downhill all the way’. But such attitudes infiltrate all parts of everyday life. That’s how older people are excluded from employment, harassed on public transport, and even when shopping.
Language can demean and depress. “Old fart”, “little old lady”, “bitter old man” and “old hag” were, researchers found, the most used ageist phrases on social media. Four thousand people in the UK were surveyed. Thousands of tweets and blogposts were also analysed for discriminatory and ageist language. And that’s without journalists using the term “the elderly” for anyone aged over 65.
Editor’s note: Terminology related to people with disability has changed over the years and is generally more inclusive. However, we are a long way behind with our language for older people. They are still viewed as a burden and a problem. Worse still is the terminology of ‘tsunami’ as if longevity is a national disaster.
Hospitality magazine has a good article on making small business accessible. It recommends thinking about access and inclusion from the start, not as an afterthought. And it isn’t all about wheelchairs. Being able to read the menu without getting out your phone flashlight to see it is a start. While Braille menus would be great, reading the standard menu to someone who is blind and sitting alone is essential, not just a courtesy. The assistance dog is not expected to read it. And this isn’t just about the law.
“While many businesses adhere to protocol, they still aren’t doing enough to truly welcome customers with a disability. A ramp might allow access to the premises, but is there enough room for diners to move around freely once seated?” However, some developers are thinking ahead.
“The Lendlease team took into account everything from footpath width and the design of entryways to countertop heights and amenities when building the King Street precinct in Brisbane.
At the end of the article, Accessibility shouldn’t be an afterthought, is a list of organisations that can help businesses improve their customer service and repeat business. City of Melbourne has an infographic on Good Access is Good Business. It has the key points on a page. However, infographics are not accessible to people who use screen readers.
It isn’t just about consulting with humans in the design process. It is about understanding the impact that design has on us as humans. Sarah Williams Goldhagen argues that people undervalue good design. There is no such thing a neutral when it comes to design of the built environment. It has either a positive or negative effect on people. A place should inspire uses and bypassers. If it doesn’t support what people need to do then it is eroding wellbeing and impoverishing people’s lives. This is especially the case when you can’t even get into a place or space because it is inaccessible. Goldhagen goes on to say that good design is less about personal taste and more about human bodies and minds. Goldhagen’s article is in the Journal of Urban Design and Mental Health. It is titled, What is Human-Centered Design? Should Anyone Care?
A related article about designing cities so we can sleep well is also worth a read, Sanity and Urbanity.
A home builder in Queensland, is building Livable Housing Silver level homes and he wants everyone else to follow his lead. He has persuaded Townsville City Council and industry stakeholders to come together to make this possible. In a 9 minute video (below) various people explain the importance of Silver level to them. The best parts of the video are in the second half where Martin Locke shows how Silver level homes are modern and “normal”. One key point is that it shows there are no design or technical impediments for having Silver (or Gold) level in all new housing.
The video begins with several wheelchair users explaining their situation. But wheelchair users are only one part of the story of universal design in housing. The emphasis on wheelchair users is likely to perpetuate the idea that this is “disability housing” and this puts it in the “specialised housing” bracket. The Livable Housing Design Guidelines are about everyone, not just wheelchair users.
Locke believes Silver level can be rolled out without additional regulation. In theory this might be true. However, the evidence is not with him. The industry, particularly the mass market section, relies on regulation to hold the system together so that all the designers, engineers, and trades know what they are doing and can work in tandem.
The Australian Network for Universal Housing Design (ANUHD) supports Gold level of the Guidelines because these thoughtful features are good for everyone, and especially for older people and young children. Locke’s estimations of extra cost need further examination. For example, he doesn’t say why a level shower recess and level access into the home should cost more than current designs. If included as regular practice the cost, if any, would be negligible.
It’s great to see at least one community trying to make a difference in this space. Martin Locke and the Townsville City Mayor are to be congratulated for their efforts in bringing people together to show the way for the house-building industry.
Social justice campaigners use the term “intersectionality” which means that a person can identify as belonging to more than one marginalised group. For example, gay, Aboriginal and with a disability. But sometimes it’s easy to forget about diversity. To help think broadly about the diversity in our population, The Commons Social Change Library has a concise list of things to think about when running an event. The title of the article is, How to make your social justice event accessible. An interesting organisation with many resources.
Designing an accessible home on a narrow lot can be done. An architectural group in Melbourne were faced with this situation and were able to provide accessibility on the ground floor. The site was tight – approximately 11 metres by 19 metres. The article in Architecture and Designhas few details of the access features other than “spatial amenity”. However, it details the materials used and explains the design aesthetics. It was interesting to note that the local council was not supportive of the development in the early stages because of the look of the home. Good to see it featured in an architectural magazine. Perhaps next time the magazine will point out the accessible features – even if they are invisible to the casual observer. Nice pictures.
Note – home elevators are becoming more popular as a viable alternative to moving house. Designers should consider this as a potential later adaptation and make provision in the initial design.