As design professionals, we pride ourselves in providing a wide range of services that on one side of the spectrum, yield the fundamental human need for shelter, and on the other side, will go as far as designing intricate gadgets like glowing pillows, stainless steel wallets, table-top fireplaces and wrench-shape key fobs that also act as bottle openers.  Whatever you fancy, there’s most likely a design for it.  But filtering down to a common denominator, all designers share the ability or the desire to solve problems.  Solutions, grand or small, are what architects and designers strive for…and for some, perhaps a measure of self worth.

So, given the innate nature of problem-solving architects and designers, there has been an emerging ‘problem’ that has been overlooked…perhaps even ignored by the creative community:

How to integrate those with disabilities into our built environment so that they can function as productive individuals, without having to overcome not only their own challenges, but the physical challenges in which they encounter when walking through the front door.

Well…what about the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) that has modified…to say the least… the way buildings are built in the last 20+ years.  Has this not solved the civil rights issue of exclusion?  In some ways…yes, this enacted law was a form of mitigation for the physically and mentally challenged.  It has served as a catalyst (in the building industry) to ensure the basic accommodations for those who need the support.  But in complying to ADA requirements with respect to building codes, costs associated with these provisions can add up, not to mention physical space allocated for code compliance can increase substantially.  It is no wonder architects and designers scoff at the idea of implementing something that ultimately may detract and possibly hinder their grandiose vision.  It is this conviction that many have such negative attitudes toward something that may have the potential to enhance one’s design.  After all, is it not the architect and designers who boast their creative abilities (problem solving abilities) to transform everyone’s way of living? To innovate and inspire with their design sensibilities? To create not only form but concepts like ‘place-making’ that provoke thought and emotion?  Is it not this disposition of elevated competency, sufficiency, and…(shall it be dared said…egotism?), that should be the driving force in tackling this little issue of integration for the physically challenged?

Perhaps there should be a sense of professional, if not personal responsibility for inclusionputting aside the mandated ADA measures. If we see a problem, shouldn’t we fix it?  However…is it a ‘problem’ if it doesn’t directly affect you and I?  Well, if it doesn’t directly affect us, then we tend to turn a blind eye…out of site…out of mind (problem solved!)…it’s only human nature.  Believe it or not, there are individuals who genuinely have trouble over the simplest things we all take for granted such as being able look over counters, allowing everyday transactions to take place.

But here’s the point– should we have waited for ADA measures to take place (as related to building codes) dictating a substantial amount in what architects and designers are allowed or not allowed to do?  Or should it have been the building and design industry to take this under its wings in a celebratory manner and possibly perceive it as a problem-solving mission?  Perhaps with the latter, there may have been more authority and control in the direction for these measures, and in turn, may have  more endorsement from architects and designers with a sense of compassion.  Lowering a counter height may break a designer’s ego, but if we embrace the fact that not all of us are equal, perhaps the ADA stigma may dwindle to a point of no return.

….just a thought.

~ Thuan Ton, domusstudio architecture