Let Freedom Ring! – Designing for Democracy in the U.S.

I don’t often get overly patriotic, but I make exceptions for important things like the 4th of July and the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). The what? The Fourth of July, you know … oh. You meant that ADA thing.  Yeah, so get this … in 1964 the Civil Rights Act made it illegal to discriminate based on race, sex, national origin, religion, and other similar characteristics but it wasn’t until 1990 – nearly thirty years later – that the Americans with Disabilities Act made it illegal, under certain circumstances, to discriminate based on disability. Both pieces of legislation stand out as shining moments in our country’s move toward a land that is truly free and just for all. 

Image: Flickr

Image: Flickr

As an interior designer my commercial work is guided the standards set forth by the ADA, as well as related accessibility codes, to promote equal access to all peoples, regardless of their abilities. Sure, there are loopholes and exceptions, but that’s why professional interior designers are trained to look beyond codes and guidelines, to the heart of the message. When we take the broadest possible view of equality and accessibility we approach something much bigger than the ADA … we enter the realm of universal design.

The principles of universal design are intended to guide designers in developing everything from individual products to multi-level buildings. To think beyond ADA can be challenging and can increase the cost of design development for both the designer and the client. So here’s the question: why would we want to design beyond ADA, if that’s all that’s legally required?

I’m going to skip right past the “it’s the right thing to do” argument and come back to that later. First, the resulting design can make the client more money. Have you ever been to a theme park, like the Magic Kingdom in Disney World? Imagine the income lost in unsold tickets, concessions, and souvenirs if the park wasn’t family-friendly and accessible. For one, there would be no wheelchairs, motorized carts, crutches, or strollers allowed. I think that rules out half of my family and I’m sure not going to the park by myself. That’s money lost.

Second, the design can save money. Consider the financial benefits to a universally-designed home. My neighbor broke his leg at work and was wheelchair bound for nearly six months, followed by months on crutches, then a cane. His whole house had to change, even for something temporary like an on-the-job injury. Those renovations to a standard (non-accessible) home mean money out of his pocket. Imagine if his original home had been designed from the start to be universally accessible, or even adaptable. That’s money saved.

Last, and you knew it was coming, it’s the right thing to do. The United States is a country of the people, by the people, and for the people. We all get a vote. We all get our life, and liberty, and the chance to pursue happiness. And yet bad design and unqualified designers can surround us with products and interiors that deny us the very rights upon which this country was founded. Nowhere is the value of a professional interior designer so clear as in their commitment to these all-American values. So if I get star-spangled banners in my eyes when talking about the importance of the Americans with Disabilities Act and the principles of Universal Design I hope you’ll understand that it’s not just the right thing to do, or the financially-sound thing to do. It’s the patriotic thing to do (*cue eagle soaring overhead*).