Frequently Asked Questions...
Q: My architect told me they’re experts at ADA accessibility and that’s all they need to create my accessible building.
A. This is like your General Practitioner doctor saying they know medicine, so can perform your heart surgery. Would you say yes to that, or would you want to hire a doctor who’s been doing heart surgery successfully a few times…or even a few hundred times? At The Art of Access we have the lived experience and the professional insight to be the specialist you need.
For the last 30+ years of the ADA the building professions have seen compliance as an aspirational ceiling that magically yields a perfectly usable environment. But it’s actually a floor - not a ceiling - and as a profession we need to build from there to create better buildings.
Q: How can I prevent my home from feeling institutional when I want it to be accessible for myself, my family, and my friends, or plan for aging in place?
A: Don’t subscribe to the tendency to use commercial and institutional solutions for accessibility when designing homes. That’s what the ADA and the State Building Codes were designed around, so of course you’ll get an institutional-looking result. We avoid this with with our three-step process that resolves the imbalance between great design and great access:
1. INQUIRE: We think of ourselves as architectural anthropologists, and delve deeply into understanding your family and your needs (around everything , not just disability) and use that as the basis of design. We put the commercial requirements to the side, and focus instead on you with our Dream Home Workbook questionnaire process. We say “inquire” rather than just “listen” because with 30 years of crafting solutions for clients with different needs, we know the key questions to ask. So even even you don’t have a clue where to start, we can help.
2. FILTER: We filter what we learn through our lived experience with disability, deep knowledge of the code and other standards, and experience creating hundreds of accessible homes and other buildings. There’s a unique insight that people with disabilities have about the built environment and the minutia of daily living that is simply missing from most architects’ worlds. We live it, know it, and put needs through our reality filter to figure out what you actually need now and into the future.
3. RESOLVE: At every moment of the two steps above, we’re also thinking about creative design. Opportunities open us as we learn about your site, your programmatic needs, and your life.
Other designers who are focused on learning about accessibility can easily forget about beautiful, aspirational design. Similarly, it’s easy for artistic designers to forget about or poorly execute accessibility when they’re focused on beautiful design. The two need to be balanced. That is our architectural alchemy: balancing artistic design and deeply insightful accessibility. In fact, we’re so passionate about balance in all parts of our projects that the A’s at the beginning of Art and Access in our logo are crafted to be inspired by the yin/yang balance we all seek in life.
Q: Doesn’t everything that goes beyond code accessibility cost more money?
A: Some of accessibility relies on more space or less mainstream products that may cost more, but much of it is just smarter design. One key is starting with a clear idea about accessibility when your project is still a diagram sketch. Whether it’s an airport or a single-family home, more thoughtful design…done right from the beginning…creates a more integrated design that works better for more people without adding costs.
But for things that do add cost, like more site grading to achieve an entrance that works for everyone, or giving more space to having more than the minimum number of accessible bathroom stalls so that wheelchair riders and families with strollers both benefit, we have to ask ourselves, “What does it cost to NOT have accessibility?” There are costs in usability and comfort, a cost in embarrassment when a family takes the one accessible bathroom stall in a pinch and someone in a wheelchair has to wait 10 minutes for it in an otherwise empty restroom, a cost in dollars when future remodeling has to be done to address new user needs or new code changes.
But we need to change the narrative about the cost of accessibility and inclusion; we need to get unstuck on the cost debate and accept the reality that that we've actually been getting away with spending and investing less on access and inclusion. This has been the case in the more than three decades since the FHAA (Fair Housing Amendments Act) of 1988 and the ADA of 1991. We have been living in a false economy.
It’s an astonishing truth that building professionals bemoan the need to “force” their buildings into ADA compliance with laws that have been a requirement for so long. There are deeply-ingrained societal assumptions about the building cost "damage" that results and the difficulty of technical compliance. We need to leapfrog over those arcane notions by setting a new bar for equity, inclusion, and usability, and by redefining a new, better, balanced architecture that creatively and beautifully weds art and access.
Q: There are already a lot of accessibility requirements in the ADA and building codes - what’s wrong with just applying those in an aesthetically nice way?
A: Because the ADA requirements were an acknowledged compromise, and we now know we can do better. In the public hearings of the late 1980’s where the details of the ADA were debated, people in the Disability Rights Movement went up against the powerful building owners and contractors lobbies. Much of whats’ in the ADA has as much to do with what those lobbyists would accept as they do about what people actually need.
And just as with every other piece of Civil Right legislation, which is what the ADA is, we see a need to adapt and update it as society grows and changes, and as prejudices that allow for compromises fall by the wayside.
Today, the design process for anything from a product to a building to a city needs to set “standards” like the ADA aside, and ask new questions about what people, in all their diversity, really need.
Q: As an architect, I already have complex ADA and code requirements to deal with. How am I expected to understand Universal Design when there are no clear standards for it?
A: That’s what teams are for. The Disability Rights Movement of the 1990’s started using the phrase “nothing about us without us”, meaning don’t design something for us that you think we need without having us be part of the design solution, whether it’s around city services, transportation, products, buildings, or anything else. As a California State Building Standards Commissioner involved in the code-creation process and a wheelchair-riding practicing architect, Erick Mikiten understands the code’s requirements as well as its limitations.
We have lived experience and code experience to bring to the table, but what sets us completely apart from other accessibility consultants is that we’re designers teaming up with designers. Just as when we work with single-family clients and deeply investigate their personal needs, we completely understand - and can even help define - your design goals around not just accessibility, but how that fits into every aspect of your project.
Q: We know Universal Design overlaps many of our complex team’s responsibilities, so don’t know where to start.
A: Three steps: Teach, inspire, and empower. We can help by teaching your team about the genesis of Universal Design, inspiring them to understand the deep value of it, and empowering them with tools they need to implement it in their work and spread the word. A shared goal for the public good, for usability and inclusion, can help a team do better work in every area. And that inevitably leads to improvements on their next projects, and education of their next team. Inclusion and Universal Design can become a chain reaction through the profession.
The power of an idea is described perfectly in the book The Little Prince, by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry:
If you want to build a ship,
don't drum up the people
to gather wood, divide the
work, and give orders.
Instead, teach them to yearn
for the vast and endless sea.