Exclusive “interview” with the late Ron Mace

Universal design is design that’s usable by all people, to the greatest extent possible, without the need for adaptation or specialized design.

–Ron Mace, 1985
Ron Mace as a young boy, working on architecture, and posing in his wheelchair.

Sarah Pruett (SP): Hi Ron, thanks for meeting me. Let’s get right to it. My husband uses a wheelchair full-time because of a spinal cord injury. We’ve definitely encountered places and programs that didn’t accommodate his needs. What were things like when you were young?

Ron Mace (RM): See back then there weren’t any laws in place to give people with disabilities a chance. The world was simply not built to meet my needs. I was diagnosed with Polio at the age of nine, and the doctor told my parents to keep me institutionalized. Thankfully my parents didn’t listen and wanted to give me as much opportunity as they could. So they brought me home and essentially carried me where I needed to go, even up and down flights of stairs at school. My wheelchair didn’t fit into my bathroom at home, so my creative mind rigged up a metal stool that could get me through the doorway easily. In college, I couldn’t get to any of my classrooms so my mom bought a trailer and I lived and worked there throughout architecture school. [1]

SP: What was it like trying to get into college?

RM: When I applied to architecture school, I was told by the dean not to try. He felt that a person with a disability could not make it through the program, and did not have any business trying. He reasoned that I could never do the work successfully nor find and maintain a job. I have no idea what experience he had with anyone else with or without a disability upon which to base such strong opinions. I completed school as a result of the tenacity of my family. They devoted a large portion of their lives for the six years I was in school to ensure that I was carried whenever necessary through an inaccessible, and even hostile, environment. There was neither assistance nor accommodation made. It was difficult, but not impossible to successfully complete the program. I entered my field before physical and programmatic access were required and discrimination prohibited, before any assistance or advanced technology could be of help. This situation has radically improved.” [1]

SP: So after graduation what was next?

RM: I had to do an internship and found it hard to find one. That’s when I realized I really wasn’t getting a fair chance, and no one wanted me. I was finally picked to work in Greensboro, NC heading up the design of the Greensboro Civic Center, while my classmates were doing simple entry-level jobs. I couldn’t find any accessible places to live in Greensboro, so I had to make the commute from my parents’ house in Winston-Salem every day. [1]

SP: We found the same problem in Greensboro when we were looking to live there in 2009. We eventually found a place in Kernersville that worked well. It was newer construction though which made the difference.

RM: My how things have changed. That wasn’t around in my day.

SP: So when did you start working on architectural designs to include a wider range of people?

RM: I worked in the traditional lines of architecture for several years and this included teaching some drafting classes at a community college in Fayetteville, NC. I worked with lots of other architects and was hoping this was where I could sneak my ideas of “accessible design” into the minds of those drafting and onto the offices doing the design. I soon was asked to help write new building codes for NC including accessible features. This lead to other states doing the same thing, and then was adopted into the national codes for accessibility we see today in the United States. [1,2]

SP: How were things perceived when you began coming up with new guidelines?

RM: When things were first printed regarding the building guidelines people complained because they were hard to read. My students and I went to work for long hours to make detailed drawings and illustrations for better understanding. The students were stoked that they were working on something so monumental. The students took their education to the next level and actually helped renovate the school for increased access based on the plans they were drawing. We eventually realized that we also needed to start training people as well. Architects, designers, builders, and everyone involved in making this happen and why it was important. My wife and I wanted to do a lot of the training, and because we lived it, people “got it.” We’d roll up in the van and I’d lower the ramp onto the platform in which I was speaking. People listened. [1]

SP: In reading about your accomplishments I see that you started a program at NC State called The Center for Universal Design. How do you explain the concept of universal design?

RM: The whole concept of universal design is not to single out anyone because of a disability. That differs from the term barrier-free. Barrier-free has the intent of designing it differently for people with disabilities, like with the ADA, but universal design is put into place so the widest range of people can use the same entrance to get into a building, use the same products to make dinner, and participate in the same program together. The design isn’t special for one group of people over another. It works for “everyone” to the greatest extent. We’re all getting older and do not fit the definition of “normal” that some designers/architects tend to base their reality on, so by making something usable by the widest range of “normal” than we can accommodate a lot of our population. [3]

SP: Your friend and colleague Jim Bostrom said this about you. “Ron was tireless in his conviction that accessible design was the key to people living independently” and that you were known “as the person who had the answers.” [1] In reading your bio [1,2] and seeing all the legislation and visionary thought you have been involved in throughout your life, what do you want to see for the future?

RM: Well, I was asked a similar question in 1987 in an interview with the magazine Progressive Architecture. My response: “I’m very optimistic. I think we are ten, maybe twenty years away from where we will not have to talk about this as something special. It takes a long time to change attitudes and practice.” [1]

It is now 2017. We are way past Ron’s 20-year prediction and are still talking about these issues. Mace has led the way in making our world a more accessible place. Based on his experiences back in the 1950s, our reality is much different today, but we still need to help change perspectives and make our society more welcoming to a wider variety of people.

We’re carrying on his vision.

  1. Building a World Fit for People: Designers with Disabilities at Work (Hunter, Ostroff, Limont, 2002)
  2. NC State, The Center for Universal Design, Ron Mace Bio
  3. Ron Mace’s Last Speech

2 responses

  1. Sarah, I enjoyed reading this article! This was a creative way to share Ron’s story and vision.

  2. Thanks for reading, Rosemarie! I’m glad you enjoyed it!

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