011: Are “stramps” universally designed?

We discuss how the internet isn’t always accurate in the description of universal design, and what our Design Advisors thought of this ramp/stair design.

011: Are “stramps” universally designed?
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Show Notes

We are discussing the following pictures from Robson Square in this episode. This is an example of a set of stairs and a ramp merged into a single design (“stramp” – Google it, it’s a word)! These images were found from a google search.

The Design Advisors in our organization reviewed these pictures and shared if they thought the design: Worked Well, Could Be Better, or Wouldn’t Work. Here is a breakdown of the results and their comments.

We also discussed an article written by Scott titled: Accessible Design vs Universal Design.

Transcript

[00:00:27] Kati: Hey everyone! It’s Kati and Sarah here. And before we get started, we just wanted to let our listeners know that we are recording remotely today and we’re not in our usual studio because of the Coronavirus. So if you hear any glitches or imperfections in the audio, we want to apologize about that. Hopefully, we’ll be back in the studio soon. 

[00:00:47] All right, so back to today’s episode. We are going to be talking about the different pictures that appear on Google when someone searches for the term universal design. A lot of times, when someone is curious about universal design or accessibility, they’ll do a quick Google search to see what they can learn about it. And usually, they’ll search for pictures too so that they can get a better idea of how someone might have implemented universal design features in the past. But we’ve actually found that many times these pictures aren’t really depicting universal design. 

[00:01:19] And it’s very possible that architects and builders will see these pictures assume that design works for everyone, and run with it, and that might not be the best thing to do. 

[00:01:29] So we decided to conduct a little experiment to see whether or not the images that pop up on Google when you search for the term universal design are actually universal design. 

[00:01:40] So the first thing we did is we typed in the keywords universal design or accessible home into the Google search bar and sifted through all the different pictures that popped up. When we found pictures that interested us, we saved them to a shared Google drive and then picked through some of those to send out to our design advisors for their feedback. 

[00:02:00] So for those of you who might not know, here at The Universal Design Project, we have a group of people called design advisors who have personal experience with disabilities and they provide us with feedback on our design plans and on pictures like this so that we know if it truly works or if it doesn’t for a wide variety of people.

[00:02:20] So back to the experiment. Once we had the pictures we wanted to assess, we created a simple survey that included the picture and a description of that picture so that even someone with impaired vision or blindness would know what we were talking about. We then asked our design advisers to answer a multiple-choice question about the picture.

[00:02:39] The three options were: 1) it works well 2) It could be better, or 3) it won’t work. Then, underneath that, there was a little text box for them to describe why they chose the answer they did. Many people ended up sharing about their experiences and others had interesting thoughts, ideas, and questions, which really helped highlight all the different perspectives of the design advisors.

[00:03:04] We will share those comments with you later in this podcast episode, but I did want to mention that this is just the first of many surveys that we will be sending out and reviewing, so be sure to check back for more episodes like this in the future. 

[00:03:18] All right, so you’re probably wondering what picture we use for our first survey.

[00:03:24] The picture is of a stramp. Yes. Google it. STRAMP. It’s a term, it’s spelled S, T, R, A, M, P, and we’ve posted it into the show notes, so be sure to check it out there. But the stramp is a picture that depicts a very large set of stairs with a ramp merged into the design. There are handrails along the outside edges, and there’s one handrail that is located within the staircase.

[00:03:51] And this picture has been circulating quite a bit on the internet.  We’ve seen it show up a lot in different articles. And I think, Sarah, you actually saw this picture in a presentation, didn’t you? 

[00:04:02] Sarah: Yes. So we’ve been to several presentations where people were talking about universal design and they put this picture up there to describe it.

[00:04:11] What’s really interesting is we were called up by the presenter at one of these presentations before the talk to discuss universal design. We were actually there just to listen to the presentation. So we just kind of jumped right on in. But while we were standing up front, this picture popped up onto the screen and it was kind of awkward because the presenter wanted us to share why this was such a good example of UD, but we were like, ah, this, this has merit, but we kind of had the step on their toes a bit and explain why we didn’t think it would work well for a wide range of users when the intent of the design was actually to do so. 

[00:04:51] Kati: Hmm. That must’ve been an interesting experience. Why do you think people are sharing this picture as a good example of universal design?

[00:05:00] Sarah: So I thought that maybe they see other people talking about this as a good idea of inclusivity and that people could use the ramp and stairs in the same space. So I know I’ve been in many places where accessibility was an afterthought. So we were trying to get into the building and we’d have to find the ramp, which was in the back of the building somewhere because there was no accessible entrance at the main door.

[00:05:24] This style of architecture changes this; the stramp would actually change this.  Then I thought, well, maybe they’re just looking at it from their own personal experience and say, yeah, like I could use that. And then they share it. 

[00:05:37] It is quite a marvel of construction. If you look at the show notes, it’s a pretty massive structure and I think it’s so interesting that we keep seeing this image pop up on Twitter and other areas of the internet as a good example of universal design.

[00:05:52] I think people think that it’s such a good idea, and so they share it. And then put the hashtag universal design on there, but they really don’t know what universal design is. I don’t think they’re looking at how people would even use the strap. 

[00:06:09] Kati: I think that’s a good point, Sarah. And that’s another reason why we’re discussing this in our podcast is because we need to bring awareness to the fact that a lot of people might not fully understand what universal design is and they might assume that everything they see on the internet is accessible or is universally designed when a lot of times it’s not.

[00:06:28] And plus there’s a ton of different terms out there that kind of all mean the same thing, which might even be confusing for them, such as the term accessible, the term age in place. Then there’s a universal design. There’s the term visitability, and the list goes on. 

[00:06:44] Sarah: Yeah. I think that’s a good point. Scott actually wrote a really good article about that, so we’ll make sure we add that in the show notes as well.

[00:06:52] But this also makes me think of the power of social media.  We are in the age where people share things and they’re not fully aware of what they’re sharing. For example, many people think that universal design is just for people with disabilities and you don’t need UD if you don’t use a wheelchair.

[00:07:10] Yet, this idea is very shortsighted. We all know people who have limitations and we aren’t immune to having even a temporary injury ourselves. If only people could experience universal design, then I think they’d have a change in heart. But you know, we can discuss this on another day.

[00:07:30] However, I think the biggest thing here is when people design things, they don’t understand the users that will be using them, and the end product might not be very safe or functional for them. 

[00:07:43] Kati: Those are really, really good points. I think it’s just a matter of people really taking the time to think through the people that are going to be using the product and whether or not it’s going to be functional for them.

[00:07:52] So thank you for sharing. All right. So next we’re going to talk about the results that we got from our design advisors. So we emailed them this survey and we had them,  send it back to us within a week, and then we kind of reviewed all the results and kind of categorized it a little bit. So I’m going to talk through that now.

[00:08:10] So there were a total of 18 people that responded to our survey. Of those 18 people, 2 people thought that the stramp worked well. 12 people said it could be better, and 4 people thought it wouldn’t work at all. Everyone who responded included a little explanation about why they thought what they thought and that provided us with a lot more insight and helped us understand the perspectives of various people, various users who have different abilities.

[00:08:38] And their responses actually made it apparently clear that what could work for one person might not work for another. And that’s a huge thing to take away from this experiment. 

[00:08:48] So we analyzed their feedback and separated their responses into four categories. These categories are positives, negatives, their ideas, and their questions.

[00:08:58] So we’re going to share some direct quotes from our design advisors for each of those categories and then give you a little bit of an additional perspective from us as occupational therapists and I’m an occupational therapy student. 

[00:09:12] So the first category is positives. So one person said that it was a really cool design. One person said it was innovative and inclusive. Another person said, it seems workable for a person using a wheelchair. It’s not too steep and it’s wide enough. Another person said it’s usable by people who push strollers. Another person said it could be great for people with bad knees or other people who use mobility devices. 

[00:09:40] So from my perspective as an OT student, at first glance of the stramp, I thought it was a really cool design  and I’m sure the designer intended to create something that was really beneficial for all people, but then I took a closer look at it and then you start to realize that there was a lot of thought that was left out. 

[00:09:57] Sarah: Exactly. I think that until you understand how others with varying abilities do things in their everyday lives, that you can’t really understand how something is functional for someone else.

[00:10:09] I feel like this might have been looked at via the lens of people with physical disabilities because you’ve got, the ramp integrated within the steps, but those who may have vision impairment or difficulty with cognition and memory, I don’t think that was really looked at very well.

[00:10:26] Although people with physical disabilities would still probably have difficulty with this design as you’ll discover as we continue with what some of the design advisors said. 

[00:10:37] Kati: Yeah. So let’s get into the next category which is all the negative things that people thought about the stramp. Some people said that it might cause disruptions in the traffic flow between the people that were using the stairs and the people that are using the ramps…

[00:10:51] Sarah: Which I’m going to interrupt real quick here. I didn’t actually think about this when I looked at this stramp many, many times over the years. And so that’s why I love our design advisors because they all have additional thoughts on the functionality of things that I didn’t.

[00:11:06] So when people are using the ramp and using the stairs at the same time, there could be disruptions in the traffic flow. 

[00:11:13] Kati: Yeah. That’s something I hadn’t considered either. And another thing that I didn’t consider that somebody said was that skateboarders and kids who are biking around, they might use that space in a negative way because they’re trying to do cool tricks and stuff on this ramp-stair integration design that’s meant for people to just safely get to where they’re going. So that was another thing that I saw. 

[00:11:37] Some of the other negatives that people hit on were that it could be a major fall hazard, either going up or going down. Someone said it looks horrendously dangerous. Someone said it’s not safe. Someone else said there’s poor lighting at night. Another person said it’s not functional for someone with vision loss to navigate. It could be overwhelming and difficult for people navigating with memory loss, or intellectual disabilities or autism. There are no handrails on the ramp portions is something else someone said. Someone else said that there are so many steps and there are a lot of steps. It’s kind of overwhelming for me. 

[00:12:17] Sarah: Like there has to be an easier way to get up the structure.  I mean, is there a way to go around it. Like there’s just so many steps!

[00:12:25] Kati: I know, I encourage you all to go look at the picture now if you haven’t looked at it yet. , it’s quite elaborate. So I love this little experiment we did because we’re really getting to see all the different perspectives from people. And like you said earlier, we wouldn’t have considered these things if it hadn’t been for what our design advisors are telling us. 

[00:12:45] When I looked at this, the biggest thing that stuck out to me as an OT student was the slope of the ramps ’cause they look entirely too steep. I don’t think somebody who is using a manual wheelchair would be able to push themselves up that ramp. Especially if they’re of older age and they have,  impairments with endurance and things like that. I just don’t think there’s any way.

[00:13:08] And then another thing that stuck out to me was that there is no contrast in color with the stairs, which could be dangerous for anyone, but especially those with impaired vision because they might not be able to see where the next step starts and where that step ends. And it could just be incredibly dangerous for anyone. 

[00:13:27] Sarah: Yeah, that’s the biggest thing I saw too and a lot of our design advisors mentioned that. And I think that’s where that safety, horrendously dangerous, comments came from. And I could actually see people stepping off on the wrong spot or a wheel rolling off the ramp and then up onto a step.

[00:13:42]And really the contrast can be helpful for anyone even if they’re not visually impaired. I mean, it’s just helpful for all of us to navigate the space. 

[00:13:51]Kati: So let’s move on to the next category, which is ideas.  We like our design advisors to give us their thoughts and their ideas and what they might do to make this design better.

[00:14:01] Someone suggested changing the pavement to a different color so that there is color contrast or having a different texture to indicate… 

[00:14:10] Sarah: Where there’s a ramp versus a stair, kind of having some sort of texture to indicate that and that would help with people who are potentially navigating with vision loss and use a cane to do so that would help them to.

[00:14:22] Kati: Yes. Someone else recommended to add benches in so that there are areas for people to sit and rest if they can’t climb up the extravagant staircase.

[00:14:34] And then another person said that universal design is about the absence of both steps and ramps. The stramp can claim the role of accessibility but not universality.

[00:14:45] I really like that point about the stramp claiming to be universal when it’s actually just accessible and that seems to be a theme in a lot of the pictures that we did find on the internet when we did our search for universal design. 

[00:14:58] Sarah: Right? Yeah. And this is what universal design is all about. It isn’t universal by slapping a ramp onto a building. Also, your point about the pictures on the internet. I’ve seen so many blogs and pictures that are discussed at being usable by a lot of people, and a portion isn’t even accessible and that just drives me crazy. But one was an addition for an aging parent and the walkway to get in was a mixture of pavers separated by gravel. That’s just not functional at all. 

[00:15:29] And so I really like why we’re doing these podcasts to help people learn what is universal and what can be functional for people.   

[00:15:37] Kati: So moving onto the last category: questions. So people had a lot of questions about this and some of them were: “Is there room on landings for people to rest?” “Is there room for two people to pass if they’re both using wheelchairs on the landings and the ramps?” So basically what they’re asking is if one person in a wheelchair is going down the ramp, is there enough room for another person in a wheelchair to go up the ramp, or is it too narrow?

[00:16:05] Someone else asked, “what is the slant of the ramp?” And that goes back to the ramp looking a bit too steep. , and then someone else asked, how practical are they to this clean of snow and ice? Um, so our design advisors bring up a lot of good questions, and that’s another reason why their input is so valuable.

[00:16:24] And like I said earlier, we probably would have never thought of these questions or ideas otherwise. 

[00:16:29] Sarah: Right? And I think the question about the weather was excellent, like how would somebody get through this if there’s a ton of snow in the way, and are they actually going to go through and clean all the snow off of the steps?

[00:16:41] Kati: So to kind of wrap this all up,  I just want to say that the feedback we’ve received from our design advisors really broke this image down for us and highlighted the reasons why this might not necessarily be universal design. And that was the whole point of this experiment. 

[00:16:56] We got their feedback and a majority of the comments were that it wouldn’t work well for them, or that it could be better. So we can conclude from that, that it’s not truly universal design and it most likely wouldn’t be a good fit for people who experience life with a human impairment.  

[00:17:11] So we need to make sure their voices are being heard throughout the design process so that we don’t have to go back and make renovations or changes to fix something that could have been addressed in the earlier stage stages of design.

[00:17:23] So please, when you’re designing with the abilities of all people in mind, consider collaborating with a healthcare professional, like an occupational therapist and people who have experienced disability so that you can truly design the environment to work for everyone. That’s exactly what our organization is setting out to do.

[00:17:42] So last, but certainly not least, we wanted to give a huge thank you to our design advisors. This experiment wouldn’t be possible without you. So we appreciate you allowing us to use your words and your feedback to help educate and advocate for universal design and our collaborative process. 

[00:18:01] Sarah: Yes, and we look forward to doing more of these in the future. Like Kati said, we already have a few more things lined up to bring up to our design advisors and we look forward to sharing them with you, our podcast listeners, in the near future. We also hope that you continue joining us for new episodes of our podcast and that you’re learning some new things about universal design and the benefits of collaboration.

[00:18:25] Have a great day.

2 replies on “011: Are “stramps” universally designed?”

the Robinson Square steps were designed in the 1970s by Vancouver architect Arthur Erickson (Cornelia Hahn Oberlander collaborated on the project). It was an experiment in design. Erickson’s father lost both of his legs in World War 2, and Erickson was trying to find ways of making public spaces more accessible (the concept of “universal design” was many decades away). Remember that this was the 1970s — the Canadian Human Rights Act was years away (1977). For context, recall that the Americans With Disabilities Act was passed in 1990. Erickson’s design could be better, but it was an attempt few other people were making at the time.

Now: is it dangerous? Could it be better? Should it be modified in accordance with design improvements that have come along in the 40+ years since it was built? A fair number of people think so. There have been reviews of the design, but as yet, the B.C. government has decided against modifying them.

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