Accessibility Watch: Furniture

This summer, to mark the 20th Anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act, four new rules were proposed by the federal government. These amendments could make the design of objects and interfaces more accessible to people of all abilities. While some designers are already addressing such issues as making websites usable by the visually impaired, there’s much more to be done. I believe an umbrella set of rules could be a great advancement in making accessibility standards universal across all websites, objects, furniture, and public places.

 As an industrial designer I am especially interested in the proposed regulation to equipment and furniture. It suggests making objects for places accessible to the public, whether these properties are owned by private or public interests, more usable than they are currently, by people of compromised abilities. This seemingly small amendment to the ADA promises to have a long-term impact on the development of a wide variety of products, from ATM machines to library furniture, from medical equipment to exercise machines.

 Over the past few years some examples that address accessibility through furniture design have emerged, as Monica Ponce de Leone, the dean of the School of Architecture and Urban Planning at the University of Michigan mentioned in a recent NPR interview. For instance, as part of her own practice, Office Da, she developed non-standardized furniture for a RISD library. She also told the NPR audience that architecture students at Michigan integrate principles of universal design into their work, adding that young architects want to design for everyone, and plan for a variety of abilities rather than one pre-existing standard. This new generation, in fact, is challenging their professors’ and long-time practitioners’ notions of who the design client is and what he or she needs.

 Projects like Ponce de Leone’s exist as excellent examples that can revolutionize the design of furniture as well as influence policy. Rather than resort to the crutch of ugly telescoping tubing, or materials and forms that speak the language of disability, furniture designers could look to the principals of universal design, mass-customization, and new technologies to create groups of objects that are advantageous to all.

 Regulations that govern the design of furniture and other objects could create an opportunity for new categories of goods, and new markets for manufacturers’ products. I believe that designers would be happy to go beyond our stale concepts of adjustability, and innovate to introduce new modes and scales of accessibility, if only their clients, manufacturers and consumers would challenge them to do so.

The federal government will be accepting input from the public regarding the proposed ADA furniture and equipment regulations through January 24, 2011.Voice your own opinion on this topic here:

In her previous post in this series, Emily Leibin wrote about retrofitting.

Categories: Furniture, Uncategorized