027: Happy 30th Anniversary to the ADA!

A discussion about the 30th Anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act. How far have we come? Where can we go next to make spaces equitably accessible?

027: Happy 30th Anniversary to the ADA!
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Show Notes

Check out the article that we discuss in today’s episode from The New York Times: “Building Accessibility Into America, Literally” 

Here’s a link to the STRAMP episode we mentioned as well.

Transcript

[00:00:30] Hi everyone. It’s Sarah and I have Rebecca here with me today for this episode. Well, here in the virtual sense. She’s up in Pennsylvania and I’m in Virginia. Isn’t technology pretty neat that we can record a podcast together? Anyway, today we’re going to discuss an article that was recently published in the New York Times.

[00:00:50] Rebecca: Yes, we are. So just to set the stage — it’s late summer, which means we’re smack-dab in the middle of two seminal summer celebrations. July 4th and Labor Day. But this year there was another special occasion in July, which I personally think was not appropriately celebrated with socially distant barbecues.

[00:01:11] And that is the 30th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act. July 26th marked the 30th anniversary of the landmark legislation known as the Americans with Disabilities Act or the ADA. This act provides protections for people with disabilities against discrimination in a number of areas including employment, education, healthcare, recreation, transportation, and housing.

[00:01:37] It was monumental in its passing, but its 30th anniversary represents an opportunity to reflect on its impact to date and how far our country still has to go in terms of equitable inclusion in society. So in honor of the anniversary, the New York Times published an entire section with articles related to the legislation.

[00:01:56] One article stood out in particular because it discusses the fact that many of our buildings and spaces today are still not a good fit for people with disabilities. I’ve included the link to the article in the show notes and encourage you to read it. But I also want to discuss it here today with Sarah.

[00:02:13] So Michael Kimmelman, the New York Times architecture critic and author of the article asserts that architecture and design are at the heart of the ADA because of the way that spaces and products are built to exclude so many. In other words, he sees design and architecture as fields that could be leveraged and used to promote inclusion for people with disabilities even though this is typically not the case. The passage of the ADA marked the first time that building accessibility in public spaces, workplaces, and products even became a topic of conversation. And we certainly still have a long way to go in terms of actually implementing that. 

[00:02:54] Sarah: Most definitely. I agree. There have been and many positive changes that have come out of the ADA for sure. I certainly live in a world where I’ve pretty much grown up with the ADA being a part of the infrastructure in our communities. But I’ve talked to lots of friends who have disabilities that experienced our country as kids and young adults without the ADA. One friend that comes to mind who has spina bifida and who is now in his sixties has told me stories about attending a state university and seeing another friend with a disability have to pull his wheelchair up the steps of a building just to get to class. This gentleman I know primarily used forearm crutches and braces to walk during college, but now uses a wheelchair at times. He is thrilled to see curb cuts and accessible parking spaces and entrances without steps, so he can get around much easier. He finished college in an inaccessible campus and dorm room to become an engineer and has many examples for where his employers made the effort, just to make sure he could do his job well throughout his career. Because some of it was mandated, but some, because he was a good employee and a friend and they wanted to ensure he had what he needed. 

[00:04:10] Personally, in regard to ADA legislation, it does open up opportunities for my family to participate in the community, by being able to enter restaurants and stores, plus go to concerts and participate in other leisure opportunities.

[00:04:24] If you don’t know, my husband, Scott, has a spinal cord injury and uses a wheelchair. And so it’s not all great though. We still get stuck trying to ride the Metro in our country’s capital because some stations don’t have elevator access from up underground, or the elevators are out of service. There are still places that don’t really provide that access and if they do, it’s not that great. But from what I’ve heard, it’s definitely better than the things that were here before the law was passed. 

[00:04:57] Rebecca: Yeah, I feel like these are the kinds of stories that we hear all the time. And there were some of these, even in the New York Times as part of that section. And of course the passage of the ADA was a great first step, mandating the inclusion of things like curb cuts and entry ramps, Braille signs. But I think the anniversary is also a good time to ask critical questions like, “what’s next?” And, “how can things be better?” And this idea was really reflected in the article as well.

[00:05:25] Quoting a tweet by Bess Williamson, the author of the book, Accessible America when she questioned, “who sets the priorities?” in reference to a public library in New York, that claimed to comply with ADA regulations, but had tiers of zigzagging stairs, making it entirely inaccessible for many people with mobility issues.

[00:05:46] Williamson’s question, reminds me why it’s important that the design of spaces be a collaborative process. One that includes people who know the intricacies of design and architecture in addition to people with disabilities whose voices and perspectives are so often left out of this work. 

[00:06:03] Sarah: This is so true.

[00:06:04] This actually reminds me of a podcast episode we did about stramps. Yes, you heard that right. S -T- R – A – M – P – S. If you don’t know what a stramp is, it is the integration of steps and a ramp. And many people thought it was a wonderful integration of the two design elements in helping people with disabilities move along the same path as those without. We actually asked our Design Advisors what they thought about the stramp and most people said that design could be better to improve the safety and usability of the structure. Not only for people with mobility impairments, but the design definitely didn’t work well for those who struggled with vision or cognition. A few days ago, actually, we had someone comment on this episode with a little more history about the design and I really appreciated it. So I thought I’d share it with you all.

[00:06:58] They said,

“The Robson 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 II. 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, which was 1977.

[00:07:30] For context, recall that the American with Disabilities Act was passed in the 1990s. Erickson’s design could be better, but it was an attempt few other people were making at this time.”

Comment on STRAMP episode.

The commenter goes on to say that over the years, there have been many reviews of the design and the local government has decided against modifying it, which is very interesting. 

[00:07:52] So I’ve actually linked to this episode of the stramp that we did in our show notes, but this is exactly what you were talking about of having the voices and perspectives of people who live and care for people with a health condition or disability to have them as part of the design process.

[00:08:10] Rebecca: Exactly, those voices need to be heard. And on a similar note, the author of this article from the New York Times poses the following question, which I see as an integral part of the design process here at the Universal Design Project. Sarah, I’m curious to hear your thoughts on this one. So I’ll share the quote. The author presents the following question:

[00:08:30] “Does the design evolve out of a truly collaborative process that engages, upfront, the diversity of users, including those with disabilities who best know what they need and want?”

Michael Kimmelman, The New York Times

[00:08:43] Sarah: I think that’s a great quote. And I agree with that. That’s why we actually structured our organization the way we did. We feel as though health professionals like occupational therapists and physical therapists plus people with disabilities need to have their input in a design while working with a designer. All of these voices need to be heard and I think a lot of creative things can come out of having everyone work together.

[00:09:12] I know this article mostly talks about community and commercial spaces because it is the ADA, but this idea is important for our homes too. Our communities need more functional options for people with disabilities in the home market. So they don’t just have to make do with the status quo of design. The best way to get these homes functional is to have those voices heard.

[00:09:34] Rebecca: For sure. And another thing I loved about this article was its emphasis on the fact that aesthetically appealing, functional, and accessible are not mutually exclusive concepts. Structures can be beautiful and usable by everyone. And this is really the premise of universal design. The author even writes, “a ramp can be something stuck onto a building to check off a legal requirement or it can inspire a design.” And I love this statement. 

[00:10:03] Sarah: I do too. This really hits into the heart of collaboration and the way we want to view it at our organization. We don’t want to impede the creativity of a designer in the creation of community spaces, or homes, but we truly feel that collaborative effort helps the finished product be used by more diverse groups of people and to be beautiful at the same time.

[00:10:26] So, let me give an example. This is maybe how we’d arrange the layout of a bathroom. The style, it can mimic what’s currently in trend, but it can be laid out and arranged in a way that can be used by those who need to walk, those who use a wheelchair, maybe those who use a wheelchair and walk. Or, those who have trouble seeing or hearing. When different professions figure out how to merge their experience, you can only make the outcome one of beauty and function. Just like in your TEDx talk, Rebecca, you talk about making finger splints for one of the clients that you had and instead of making them look like medical devices, you changed up the finish and created a design that looked more like jewelry. I’m sure this made your client more willing to wear her splints because it looked beautiful versus being made out of a medical looking plastic. 

[00:11:21] Rebecca: Yup, exactly. So this idea of beautiful and functional can be applied in so many domains. And I think perhaps Xian Horn, a disability rights advocate, speaker, and teacher who was born with cerebral palsy, said it best. She said, “if you make a phone, or a building, or a park, or a hotel beautiful and also accessible, it makes life better for everyone.” 

[00:11:46] Sarah: Yes. And I think that’s the shift in thinking that needs to occur. It’s not just about checking off things on a checklist to say, “well, we did all we needed to do so it should  work for those people with disabilities,” but by really digging into how people move through the design and use it, what they want in the design and figuring out what truly makes things work better for everyone. I think it’s a win win for everyone. 

[00:12:12] Rebecca: I agree. And from my perspective, this idea of functional, beautiful, and inclusively created, reflects the answer to the question, “where do we still need to go in terms of equitable design?” Sure, 30 years after the ADA was passed, our society has certainly seen major improvements, but I also think that 30 years later, we can’t grow complacent. Rather, I think this anniversary is the perfect opportunity to step up our design game so that when the 60th anniversary rolls around, we aren’t asking, “what do we still have to do?” We’re asking, “what more can we possibly do?” 

[00:12:52] Sarah: I think that’s a great way to finish up this episode. I too agree that there’s more that can be done and a great call to action for those of us who are working toward making our homes and communities more usable for people of all disabilities. It’s about stepping up our design game and landscapes, commercial spaces, outdoor spaces, homes, recreation, and  all the way through to how we access digital information.

[00:13:17] By giving people disabilities a voice in the process, we will have a lot of pretty amazing designs throughout our communities without barriers to access. So that wraps up our episode for today. But thanks again for listening. Rebecca and I have quite a few more topics in the works and we are really excited to share those with you soon.

[00:13:37] Have a great day!

[00:13:38] Rebecca: Stay well! 

[00:13:40] Sarah: Sorry! [laughter] 

[00:13:43] Rebecca: It says 

[00:13:44] Sarah: donuts!

[00:13:47] Rebecca: If there’s ever a place to put bloopers, I think I’m sorry. It says donuts would be a great addition. Yeah,

[00:13:56] Sarah: that’s hilarious.

[00:14:00] Rebecca: I saw that too. I was like, I wonder what she’s going to do there. 

[00:14:05] Sarah: Oh, man, that was great.  I’m wiping the tears for my eyes now. 

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