...will you let me in the dang door?
By Heidi Johnson-Wright
Some pioneers aren’t household names -- yet. You may not have heard of Ron Mace. He was an architect, product designer and educator whose approach to design challenged convention. He envisioned a world that was more user-friendly to everyone, and coined the term “universal design.”
Universal design is about making products and built environments that are both aesthetically pleasing and welcoming to all. Not just people with disabilities and older folks with mobility issues, but also speakers of other languages; parents pushing strollers; pedestrians on foot, bicycle or alternative mobility device; or people with temporary disabilities or recovering from injuries. Its core value is creating environments that can be used by a wide range of users, regardless of ability.
To boil it down to one word: inclusivity.
Sounds positive and egalitarian, right? Well, not to some design professionals out there.
There are some folks who believe universal design is overly restrictive, unfair – even downright dangerous. They say it’s too limiting, that it caters to the few at a cost to the majority. They believe that if universal design concepts are incorporated into building codes, we’ll end up with a world filled with ugly structures and streetscapes, a world where creativity is quashed by some sort of misguided attempt to include all members of society.
Perhaps they have a point. I mean, building and fire code requirements about plumbing and electricity and exits are pretty darn restrictive. We would probably have a much more attractive and inviting built environment if raw sewage could simply be piped out to open ditches. Or if wiring could be done any which way – fire hazards be damned -- and paths of egress took a back seat to creative design.
And why is access for people who aren’t five feet nine, 175 pounds and athletic so darned important anyway? Why should we care if people in wheelchairs can’t get to a workplace to earn a paycheck because there are steps at the entrance? What does it matter to the global economy if products are designed counter-intuitively, making them unmarketable where people don’t all speak the same language? Does it really make a difference if people can’t age in place in their homes or communities because they can no longer climb stairs?
I’ll let you be the judge.