Accessible Design, Universal Design, and Social Equity in the AEC Industry—Part 1

Posted On: 
Sep 14, 2018
Accessible Design, Universal Design, and Social Equity in the AEC Industry—Part 1

Recently, a Ruth Bader Ginsburg quote was shared on social media. It said, “When I'm sometimes asked when will there be enough [women on the Supreme Court] and I say, 'When there are nine,' people are shocked. But there'd been nine men, and nobody's ever raised a question about that.” I am a middle-aged woman who has spent more of my life on the side of feminism and social equity than not, yet this quote blew my mind. Personally, it had never occurred to me to think that nine women was an option, let alone a possibility. I’m not trying to spark a discussion of male and female equality, let’s leave that to the social media keyboard warriors! But I am trying to point out how easy it is to get stuck in one perspective, forgetting that there are so many options for how to do approach life.

I have worked in property management in my past and know that needing accommodating housing can make finding a home or apartment a tricky endeavor, let alone dealing with these needs in public buildings and spaces. Even being someone who knows the laws and has worked with tenants on accommodation requests, I can benefit from a perspective shift when it comes to accessibility and inclusion. But this is important in the sustainable AEC world, even though it is already a perspective shift to incorporate sustainable design into a standard approach. Adding universal or accessible design can be a challenge, but we are hopefully on the cutting edge of the built future and want to make sure all possible needs are considered and addressed.

Why is This an Important Topic?

On average, 19% of Americans identify as disabled. According to a Bustle article by Mia Mercado, “More than one in eight Americans have a disability, according to Pew’s most recent information from 2015. That works out to be roughly 40 million people in the U.S. who have a severe impairment when it comes to one of six areas as measured by Census Bureau’s American Community Survey: hearing, vision, cognition, walking or climbing stairs, difficulty with self-care, or difficulty with independent living. That number does not include people who are living in institutions nor does it include people who have less severe disabilities. When you look at the percentage of non-institutionalized people in the U.S. who had any degree of disability in 2010, within the aforementioned measurements, that number jumps to about 18.7 percent.”

The most common housing accommodations associated with the disabilities included in the Census Bureau’s last check include:

  • A step-free entryway
  • A single-floor layout
  • Wide doors and hallways
  • Door handles in the form of levers instead of knobs
  • Electrical controls and appliances at lower heights

According to an article in The Atlantic on the housing crisis facing disabled Americans, as of 2015 only 1% of rental housing in America had all five of these features. While not every person with a disability needs every one of the features, few of them offer enough adaptations to be useful for a wide variety of disabilities. I found this to be true in my former career; in fact, on average, there was only two units considered “special needs” for every 120 units in my city and surrounding areas.

There is also a difference between universal design and accessible design. Universal (or inclusive) design is based on “7 Principles developed in 1997 by a working group of architects, product designers, engineers and environmental design researchers, led by the late Ronald Mace in the North Carolina State University. The purpose of the Principles is to guide the design of environments, products and communications”. It is intended to create an environment that is accessible by as many people as possible, regardless of age, gender, religion, size, or ability, without adaptation or specialized design; so, it includes differently abled people, but it isn’t specifically for them.

In contrast, accessible design is a process in which all the needs of differently abled people are considered, specifically in regard to how their access to everyday activities and living is made possible. If a building is designed universally, it tries to meet the needs of as many different people as possible—to include race, gender, orientation, size, age, culture—but may not be as accessible to a person with disabilities; but a building that is designed accessibly is intended to meet the needs specifically of people with disabilities.

Often, the word “equity” is used interchangeably with “universal/inclusive” and “accessible”, but there are definite differences between all three. Equity is an approach or process that makes sure everyone has access to the same opportunities, recognizing that we all start from an unequal place. Equity works to correct that imbalance. For example, a disabled person who is looking for housing is starting with a barrier that a non-disabled person doesn’t have. How can that situation be made more equitable? One way is by providing more accessible, not just more universal, housing and buildings as much as possible.

These are important facts to consider in the sustainable AEC industry. We need to be on top of the needs and trends of the people we are building for, and when 1 out of 8 people in America identify as disabled, there is a need that is not being met and a perspective shift is necessary.

Next blog post, we’ll pick up from here. In the meantime, check out our continuing education courses related to this topic:

Until part 2, we’ll sit on this question: Has the AEC industry gotten too stuck in one way of thinking about building and design?

For more information or to discuss the topic of this blog, please contact Brad Blank