Accessibility Watch:Two Decades of Living with ADA

This summer marks the 20th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), our federal government’s attempt to ensure the civil rights of U.S citizens with disabilities. It requires that all public spaces and programs be accessible to everyone, regardless of their abilities. This, of course, is a commendably idealistic standard. But as anyone who navigates the real world (either with a disability, or as in my case, with someone who has a disability) will tell you, the promise of the well-intentioned law has come true only partially. There’s much more work to be done! While the ADA has been a good start, and now that the architecture, building, and planning industries have gotten the ADA design standards down fairly well, it’s time for progress to be made in other areas of design.

Experiencing life with my mother, whose mobility is impaired by Multiple Sclerosis (MS), a disease which affects the central nervous system and impairs movement, we see every day that many aspects of her life need designers’ attention, not just the built environment. The smaller, more personal objects that are vital to mediating her interaction with her world–canes, walkers, wheelchairs, and scooters–deserve high standards of design too. In health insurance speak these objects are “Durable Goods,” intended for use on an ongoing basis. In many cases the design of these objects is completely dependant on cost restrictions, and suffers from a lack of thoughtfulness, imagination, and innovation.

In John Hockenberry’s 2006 Metropolis article about a famous architect with a serious disability, “The Re-Education of Michael Graves”, Michael Graves, explains his compulsion to redesign the medical equipment he found most unappealing, once it became a necessary part of his own lifestyle. Perhaps it’s the designer’s impulse in me too, but I’ve felt the need to do the same for the objects in my mother’s life, from fashion and furniture, all the way down to syringes and their systems of disposal.

Why should someone I love have to live every day with poorly designed goods that just barely do the job, and can be so isolating, cold and impersonal? Why is there so little choice? What are the psychological repercussions of such inattention?

Ultimately even the Graves line of products deviate little from the look and feel of their predecessors, a valiant attempt on the road to progress, but not a great stride. I would love to see designers, manufacturers, and retailers embrace the idea that disabilities rights extend beyond door widths and ramps, to entire lifestyles that deserve considerately designed objects.

Emily Leibin is an industrial designer and design writer living in New York. In May of 2010 she graduated from the School of Visual Arts’ MFA Design Criticism program. She holds a BA in industrial design from Pratt Institute and is a fellow at the Philip Johnson Glass House in New Canaan, CT.


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