Design That Makes Us All Feel

By Donald DeMars, IIDA

Reprint from Perspectives,
a publication of the
International Interior
Design Association, 1997
As a design professional who has lived for forty years with
certain physical inconveniences resulting form an encounter with
polio at the age of ten, I have been made very aware of how often
the environment has simply not worked for me, and does not
work for so many other individuals whose physical, emotional,
and intellectual framework places them "out of the norm." My own
encounters with such "barriers" have produced insights into the
processes of design, and a greater understanding of myself as
an individual and as a design professional.
The physical
environment provides
for all of us, either with
opportunities for
making our basic
functional living
experiences easier
and less physically
and psychologically
stressful, or with
barriers to such
opportunities. Within
this context, the
mission of the design
professional is to be
knowledgeable of the
person or group that
he or she is serving,
and to present
effective design
solutions for human
Pools must, under ADA, be designed to allow
disabled individuals to enter and use the
facility with little or no assistance, and without
drawing undue attention to themselves. This
may require the incorporation of removable
stairs, to ramps, movable floors, chair lifts,
railing systems, zero depth entry, deck level
gutters, sound targets for the blind or visually
impaired, visual targets for the hearing
impaired, and wet or dry ramps.
Why then does it so often seem, especially to a person with
specialized needs, as if a product or space has been selected
or designed with a total insensitivity to such various human
capabilities and limitations? Such design failure results
occasionally from purposeful compromise for technical or
budgetary reasons, but in most instances from inadvertent
oversight or a lack of knowledge by the designer of human
factors. This does not mean that any of us as designers are
completely naïve regarding the diversity of human factors, but
rather that we all evaluate and resolve design issues on the
basis of our own personal feelings and experience.
Unfortunately, this is seldom sufficient, often introducing
personal biases into the design equation. Without knowledge
or experience of human factors, we approach design issues as
we see them, not recognizing the subtle idiosyncrasies of a
large portion of the end users, producing incompatibility with
their basic sensory, motor, mental, and physical characteristics.
The Americans with
Disabilities Act of
1990 is a civil rights
act that guarantees
accessibility to
facilities and
programs for people
with disabilities, and
full participation in all
respects of American
life. Unlike other civil
rights requirements,
this law will affect the
way in which we
design and build for
all people.
Often times, our own perception of what
constitutes "accessibility’ is inconsistent with
the perception of those for whom the facilities
are ultimately designed.
The letter of the law will provide helpful, specific and functional
recommendations as minimum standards based upon
averages and stereotypes. The spirit of the law is something
completely different. It is an invitation for all of us to learn more
about each other. It is a call for empathy and compassion; and
it is the full realization that all of us, everyone of us, are, in the
final analysis, the same.

I was once asked by someone. "What is it like to be
crippled?" The question was a surprise, not that my physical
problems were not obvious, but that somehow this question
made me feel different that everybody else. My answer was, "I’
m not crippled, I just don’t walk very well." And I suppose that
answer is the very essence of understanding the challenge
that ADA places before all of us. All of us are flawed, and yet
all of us are perfect. And whether our impairments are
physical, emotional, or intellectual, either large or small, we all
want to be accepted and valued, and "like everyone else."
Increasing our awareness of how each of us see ourselves in
relationship to others leads to a greater understanding of each
other, and this inevitably will lead to design solutions and
environments that make everyone feel not different... but "like
everyone else."
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Copyright ©2003 by Donald DeMars International, Inc.