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How Designing With All of Our Senses Creates a More Inclusive World

Architects and designers are “visual people”—we digest information most easily when it has strong graphic representation. Librarians in architecture libraries can attest to the near-pristine state of architecture books that are stingy on pictures versus their well-worn cousins that are full of glossy images. As a result, building designers disproportionately dote on visual concerns: how a specific material looks, the proportion of various decorative elements, and the views in, out, and of the building.


Clearly, the visual impact of a building is a crucial part of its success, but lest we forget, there are four other senses, and buildings actively engage at least three and a half of these: sight, sound, touch, and partially smell (taste for the very brave only). Moreover, there is a significant portion of the population that engages these designed spaces without full use of all five senses, and many others without full physical mobility. The design decisions that architects facilitate can significantly alter an individual’s experience of the world—not just how we physically access and navigate a space, but how comfortable and empowered we feel within it.  If architecture wants to be an enlightened discipline invested in continuing improvement, designers owe both abled and disabled inhabitants a holistic approach to sensory and mobility accessibility.


“Accessibility” should be an integral design philosophy that aims to accommodate the widest range of abilities possible; unfortunately, many architects see accessibility as merely synonymous to the Americans with Disabilities Act Design Guidelines. Certainly the ADA, passed in 1990 and amended in 2008, is landmark civil rights legislation that has gone a long way to ensuring equality for disabled citizens, but it’s only a single, regulatory tool. Architects might not admit this, but ADA design requirements are often approached with an air of resentment: “This is going to increase our construction costs by at least 8%” or “We’re going to need a fairy godmother to shoehorn this ramp on the front of this building!” In the “building-code industrial complex” our profession currently finds itself in, there are surely ways to make accessibility requirements more efficient, but more than that, I wonder if the attitude in our profession needs to be re-visited?  Instead of approaching disability considerations as a burden, what opportunities are available if we embraced the diverse perspectives of those who experience the world differently?


Let’s take sound as an example of how sensory considerations affect design: On a recent plane flight, I was reading Winifred Gallagher’s The Power of Place.  Although the book delves into some questionable pseudo-science about how sensory environments affect human psychology, it makes some worthwhile high-level observations, one of which is that “noise is a factor only slightly less important to our experience of a place than light.” Suddenly conscious of the 85 dBA airplane cabin noise around me, I started to think about how rarely I considered the effect of sound in the buildings that I work on. Sound can shape a positive experience: on the first warm day this spring, we opened a few of the 10-foot tall windows at our office. It’s incredible how much more connected one feels to the city outside when you can hear the din of its people and cars on the street, the church bells from down the block, or the organ grinder (er, electric guitar busker in our case) on the corner. But sound can also shape a negative experience: now that the 90-degree days of August have arrived, we’ve closed the windows in lieu of the air-conditioning, which runs almost continuously throughout the day. Those moments when the air handler does turn off, there’s an immediate sense of relief as the ambient noise level drops and we realize how loud our quiet office environment really is.


Academic studies suggest there is a possible link between noise levels and the regulation of stress hormones (perhaps a vestige of that time when humans had to survive in literal jungles, not just the urban versions). Imagine if architects and mechanical engineers were even a quarter as conscious about the acoustics of homes and offices (where we spend 90% of our time) as they are about major concert halls? Michael Kimmelman had a brilliant piece in the New York Times piece about the impact that sound has on shaping space. Sound has physical properties and, just like the manipulation of materials, the manipulation of sound changes the way we perceive where we are.


The absence of sound also radically changes the way a person perceives spaces—consider all of the navigational clues a person receives based on sound.  Perhaps because of architecture’s assumption of visual reliance, design considerations for the d/Deaf and Hard of Hearing have not been mainstream. But an emerging concept developed at Gallaudet University called “DeafSpace” is bringing to the forefront how buildings can better respond to those who navigate them without any sound cues. As this article in Curbed describes, DeafSpace suggests building features like wider hallways (to make it easier for two people walking next to each other while communicating in American Sign Language), frosted glass doors (to alert the presence or approach of someone on the other side), and careful lighting and background wall colors (to provide adequate contrast for visual communication).


Importantly, DeafSpace provides concrete examples of the possible intersection of various kinds of accessibilities. For example, wider hallways benefit individuals who use wheelchairs or other mobility aids; fine tuning the acoustics of a classroom, which benefits someone who is Hard of Hearing, also benefits blind individuals that rely primarily on audible cues; and for all of us humans, the aging process regards neither ability nor disability in dulling our senses and slowing down our mobility, meaning that all of us may eventually reap the benefits of better access.


Disability itself knows no geographic, cultural, socioeconomic, racial, or gender boundaries—about 15% of the world’s population has some form of disability.  There is much to learn from their observations about sensing the world and experiencing the art of physical spaces, and designers should celebrate the diversity they bring. Indeed, the tech sector is discovering that accessibility can be a gateway to improved technology for everyone. Architects should follow suit. I recognize there will be design trade-offs and there may be laments over losing elements like tightly winding stairs or cozy, narrow doorways, but compare these tradeoffs to those we accept on behalf of environmental sustainability (single-pane windows, anyone?). Trade-offs are part of the architect’s evolving creative challenge. A recent NextCity article about urban accessibility points out that disability advocates “are advocating not just [for] physical improvement in their communities, but a revolution in our conception of the common good.” For urban environments especially, more accessible elements like sidewalks, parks, and public transit will better facilitate interaction between more people, which I would argue is a core principle of good urban design.




There are empathy-building efforts underway by some architecture schools and several AIA chapters who have begun hosting “accessibility awareness” or “barrier-free days.”  These events invite designers to “test drive” a sensory or mobility impairment for a day while they go about their typical routine. (Bob Borson, author of the “Life of an Architect’ blog, wrote about his experience earlier this year). I applaud their good intentions to (literally) spend a day in someone else’s shoes, but I fear such events risk further marginalization, especially given the reaction to them from my disabled friends. I participated in one of these as an undergraduate and remember thinking at the end of the day that I had such a better handle on what it meant to navigate as blind. Although I might be a little further down the path of understanding, in truth I barely scratched the surface.


Consider this metaphor: an architect has been hired to design a new manufacturing facility. Said architect takes 8 hours of a day to spend on the factory floor by themselves (or with other architects from their office), attempts to run the machines a few times, and then goes home (likely with a shirt that says “Manufacturing Experience Participant 2016”). It would be foolish for this architect to suggest that he or she is now in command of the factory worker’s knowledge and is thus able to design a better factory. It’s just as foolish for an architect to think that by spending 8 hours in a wheelchair that they can suddenly create more accessible spaces—the key to such spaces lie in the nuances that only a seasoned wheelchair user can point out. A wiser course would be to spend a day with a disabled person, observing and perhaps experiencing a share of the devices and tools they use to navigate, and then continuing a dialogue long after the experiential day is over (and skip the shirt). In this way the disabled person’s authentic experiences remain at the center of the equation.


An even wiser way forward for our profession is to make space for more d/Deaf, blind, and other disabled individuals to be directly involved in the manipulation of the built environment as designers and consultants. We need more architects like Karen Braitmayer, Chris Downey, and John Dickinson, and more recognition for groups like the Institute for Human Centered Design, the Center for Inclusive Design & Environmental Access, and Space2Thrive. These voices remind us that there is always room to expand our definition of “community” when we talk about community-centered places.


Building design demands a lot of details and a lot of layers, many of which can easily become disconnected from the day-to-day realities of people inhabiting the final product. Accessibility, as lived and advocated by the groups above, is a foundational layer and yet many designers (and owners/developers) fail to realize all of its potential. To do this, we don’t need thicker code books, but we do need stronger connections between the diverse, lived-experiences of users and the myriad decisions made during design: better spaces emerge from an empathy founded in evidence and inclusivity. Haben Girma, the first Deafblind lawyer to graduate from Harvard Law School, gave a brilliant speech at the 2016 Apple Worldwide Developers Conference where she reminded those designers that, “communities that celebrate diversity will find ways to be inclusive. They’ll adapt strategies to make sure everyone can participate and be involved.” My hope for the future places we’re crafting in the present is to constantly and creatively expand their limits of inclusivity, that they might advance the art and opportunity of all who inhabit them.


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