Designing for Diversity

I’m in a room filled with 200 highly diverse people. There are men and women of all sizes and weights, of Caucasian, Asian, Hispanic, and African descents. They are young, middle-aged, and older; many arrive in wheelchairs, others with the help of canes and companions, and some simply walk in. It’s a place ringing with new ideas, daring thoughts, inspiring moments, and hope about the power of design to make our world better. But it’s not an office—or a classroom.

I’m in the bowels of the Sofitel Hotel facing Copacabana Beach, in Rio de Janeiro. The occasion is the third international conference on universal design, organized by Boston-based nonprofit Adaptive Environments. The agenda includes discussions of consumer products, green spaces, workplaces, sports and recreation facilities, design education and educational environments, and policies in health care, technology, and housing. We’re here to talk about how the designed environment can become accessible to all people. We want to get beyond design for the midrange averages, still the standard practice nearly 15 years after Congress passed the Americans with Disabilities Act (a civil-rights law that sets out to correct the injustices our designed environment imposes on 54 million who may be disabled).

I listen to recurring indictments of the design professions. “Architects don’t want anyone to use their buildings,” laments an aging advocate of accessible design. “Designers are ageists,” another notes. “The design professions are populated by a young workforce that tends to design for its peers; they’re unsympathetic to the aged.” These observations begin to pinpoint reasons why the American landscape of products, places, and spaces—aside from ADA-compliant curb cuts, kneeling buses, and ramps—continues to be insensitive to a broad range of human needs.

Since I visit a lot of offices and classrooms, I can tell you that most of them don’t reflect the diversity that the conference room in Rio did. Sure, there is a better balance of Caucasian and Asian populations, but in the design classroom especially, there is only smattering of African-Americans. And I have never run into a design student in a wheelchair, one with a seeing-eye dog, or one who is less than four feet tall.

How do we begin to fix our insensitivity to human diversity? One way may be for design and architecture schools to attract older, more mature students who bring the real-life experiences of aging and disability into the studio. This is not such a far-fetched thought for a time when design is entering the public’s consciousness and midcareer professionals are returning to school.

I can just hear the lively debates in studios all over the land about how design can serve a plethora of human needs, not just some market construct. Can you imagine the work that might result? And wouldn’t it be nice if we were somehow able to transplant the hope and passion and creativity of that room in Rio to our classrooms?

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