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Design for All? A New Perspective on Universal DesignZolna Russell

Wheelchairs, grading tolerances, handrails and other physical elements are what we designers think of when we hear the term Universal Design. Compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act is a critical component of all of our projects. As a landscape architect, working in nature where these tolerances often do not exist, complying with these requirements can be confusing and challenging.

I recently gained a new perspective on what universal design truly means. My eyes were opened by a presentation I attended at Greenbuild. Four experts provided different perspectives on what universal design means and how to practice it in a way that is humane, seamless and benefits all users – not just those with obvious physical disabilities.

Victoria Lanteigne, Senior Accessibility Consultant with Steven Winter Associates, the first speaker, urged the audience to change the way we consider disability. Most of us see people in wheelchairs, walkers or someone with physical challenges and understand that person to be disabled. But the term can mean much more than that and affects everyone at one time or another in their lives. At any given time, approximately 15% of the population lives with a disability. With advances in medicine and longer lifespans, many people experience temporary or age related disabilities. In addition, disability can encompass mental health challenges such as anxiety, autism and depression, all of which impact people’s abilities to feel comfortable and navigate their environment.

A.j. Paron-Wildes, an interior designer, shared her experience designing spaces in the healthcare and education realms, specifically for people on the autism spectrum. Her perspective, shaped by having a son with autism, urged designing spaces that are flexible and dynamic, allowing the greatest variety of choice for someone who may be sensitive to sound, noise or other stimuli. All of her advice is well known to anyone who has studied healthcare design but is nonetheless, a great reminder that variety and choice in the built environment can provide benefits for all.

Hansel Bauman, campus architect from Gallaudet University, explained the differences between how those who are deaf and those who are not utilize space. Deaf people use American Sign Language which means that they need to keep each other in eye sight as well as needing increased personal space to be able to sign to each other. In a practical sense, this means wider sidewalks and creating spaces where people can face each other to communicate. Providing wider sidewalks also benefits pedestrians walking in groups, dog walkers, parents with strollers and young children, novice bike riders and many others. And creating socially dynamic gathering spaces can certainly benefit us all.

This video, created by the Chronicle for Higher Education, explains the issue:

To access a series of guidelines Mr. Bauman has developed to help design for deaf space, see the link below.

Wayfinding is a really important design element that is not usually thought of as a component of universal design. Facilitating people’s ability to get around can reduce the stress and anxiety we feel when we don’t know where we are going. Katie Osborn of Via Collective presented her comprehensive approach to wayfinding which includes signage as well as site design. Designing space that is easy to navigate improves our perception and enjoyment of a place. Typically, wayfinding is considered signage, but skillfully designed wayfinding includes providing visual clues in the landscape to communicate hierarchy and direction. In landscape architecture, wayfinding can be facilitated by use of materials, framing views using plant material or hardscape and creating clear and intuitive pathways which direct people to where they need to go. Finally, signage as a tool, is also important for reading and interpreting the environment. Signage should be not only clear and well designed, but placed in locations where it can be easily seen and followed.

Armed with what I learned from this informative presentation, I have re-dedicated myself to implementing a broader perspective on universal design in my work. Creating design that is truly universal – that is, designing physical space to be flexible and accommodating, easy to navigate, intuitive and welcoming – is just good design. Understanding that everyone has challenges and needs and creating places which everyone can enjoy will have long lasting benefits.

Continue to explore dialogues on Universal Design:

Designing for Autism: Spatial Considerations

Designing for Austism: Lighting

Gallaudet University: DeafSpace

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