Ronald L. Mace, 1941-1998.
First International Conference on Universal Design draws Design for the 21st Century Starts Now
all the major players in this field that still must fight to get
the respect it deserves
by Jim Davis
Jim Davis earned his architectural degree from Pratt Institute and is active in access issues, most recently organizing disability input into the New York City Penn Station renovation.
Nearly a thousand designers, design educators and advocates gathered last June for the first International Conference on Universal Design to share ideas and discuss the future of this futuristic idea. Sponsored by the Adaptive Environments Center, the Center For Universal Design in Raleigh, N.C., Hofstra University and the Universal Design Newsletter, "Designing For The 21st Century" at Hofstra University attracted participants from many countries--including the Japanese architecture professor who brought five of his students!
Although not a new concept--the late Ron Mace coined the term back in the 1970s--"universal design" sometimes seems more accepted internationally than it is in the U.S. It has a different meaning than "accessible"--as in "handicapped accessible" (which is how U.S. designers often refer to it). The term "handicapped accessible" often refers to inferior back-door access routes for people who cannot use stairs, or "handicapped" products designed and marketed exclusively for people with certain disabilities in a way that exaggerates the belief that "separate" (often referred to as "special") design is needed for "the handicapped."
"Universal design," on the other hand, is inclusive. It refers to design that makes things usable by everyone. A good example of universal design is the automated supermarket entrance which is used by everyone, regardless of disability or ability. People of all ages--elderly people, people using wheelchairs, walkers, canes; toddlers, people pushing baby carriages--everybody uses the same entrance.
An example of universal design in product design that advocates love to cite is the Oxo Company's "Good Grips" series of kitchen tools, which were designed to make them easier to use for people with arthritis or other problems limiting grip strength, but which have been found to be easier to use by virtually everyone. Good Grips have been marketed extensively to the public, not just people with arthritis.
Part of the story of Good Grips' marketing is a cautionary tale, though: They're marketed without mention of disability because manufacturers say they have found that the word "disability" or "handicap" on packaging causes the not-yet-disabled to instantly assume "this isn't for me."
Social attitudes toward disability ran like an undercurrent through a number of the sessions. Universal design, although nearly 30 years old as a concept, is still not accepted at design colleges, according to many of the conference attendees. Efforts to establish universal design courses in some design colleges have met with strong resistance. Some spoke of administrators and other faculty rejecting proposals to start universal design programs by insisting that it was too "narrow" a specialty, insisting that "very few people have disabilities."
"If you want to get on with your career at this school, you'd best forget about this 'universal design' business," Sandra Manley was warned by a former colleague, who she says suggested she "desist from campaigning for better access at the University and concentrate her research interests elsewhere." Manley teaches in the Architecture and Planning degree program at the University of the West of England in Bristol, England and says she has the full support of her Dean, but her experience with colleagues, others say, isn't unusual. Using words like "disability" or "handicap" was "the surest way to get the door slammed in your face," said another participant.
As a result, many said, they learned to avoid those terms in favor of more vague terms like "design for aging" or "UD," or the European favorite, "Design For All People." None of the professors had dared attempt to invoke the concept of "human rights" or the concept of equal access as a "right" in pitching their course proposals to their schools, they told me.
Polly Welch, of the University of Oregon, who has just edited a handbook on universal design for the Center for Universal Design at North Carolina State University, told me that when she'd dared to bring up the concept of "human rights," students had been receptive. But others said their fellow teachers were decidedly cool to the idea. The dean of a design school in the southeast, who told me that "all our students today are conservative," said he'd encountered heavy resistance from his students to the idea of non-discriminatory design.
Although there were perhaps twenty people with visible disabilities seen in other parts of the three-day conference, I couldn't help but notice that none of the conference attendees discussing these issues with me seemed themselves to have any visible disabilities. Only about one percent of those attending this conference seemed to have visible disabilities.
San Francisco State University emerged at the conference as a leader in product design education, showing slides of ongoing student-education workshops which they'd been doing for a number of years --using disabled "expert consultants" from disability groups in nearby Berkeley. Several seminars, in fact, touched on the evolving practice of bringing consumers with disabilities into the classrooms as "expert consultants."
Architecture schools at the State University Of New York (SUNY) at Buffalo and at the University of Oregon at Eugene seem to be in the forefront of universal design teaching in the U.S. Ed Steinfeld of SUNY Buffalo helped write the access regulations for the Americans with Disabilities Act and frequently serves as an expert witness in ADA lawsuits.
The University of Oregon at Eugene has gotten students to study access in real neighborhoods, proposing ways of squeezing more accessible housing onto very tight sites and dealing with zoning and building code regulations. And the University got students involved in designing a fully accessible city plaza that actually got built.
At a meeting of the Universal Design Education Project, formed a few years ago to link interested educators and work to develop curricula and teaching methods for Universal Design, it was reported that the group had dwindled from over 20 schools to just nine today These statistics do not necessarily measure how many schools are teaching universal design, but it seems that some schools lose interest in universal design when grants fostering the concept run out.
Leslie Kanes Weisman, Professor of Architecture at the New Jersey Institute of Technology in Newark and author of the book "Discrimination by Design" which offers a feminist critique of architecture, gave a rousing barn-burner of a speech on the final day of the conference placing the human right of equal access to the built environment into the larger context of other social concerns. Weisman, who is clearly emerging as the Ralph Nader of architecture, focuses on what architects and building codes and zoning laws do--to the interests of women, the elderly, minorities and middle- and low-income people. And now, finally, disabled people.
The conference was an auspicious beginning. One could meet not only the leaders in the field; it seemed one could meet almost everyone active in the field. There were scores of seminars on all facets of design, design teaching methods and marketing. In the evenings manufacturers exhibited disability-friendly products--my pick for best in show was a wheelchair-accessible kitchen sink that electrically adjusts to any height. Many of the designs in the student design competition were fantastic--even those that didn't win awards. A new magazine on the subject of universal design which was published in Tokyo was there, with copies of its first issue.
Although the date of the next international universal design conference has not been set, there was talk of it becoming a biennial event--and rotating sites among North America, Asia and Europe--which could mean that the next such conference in North America might be in the year 2004.
RONALD L. MACE 1941-1998
Sailing into the wind
Ron Mace, the architect who coined the term "universal design" in the 1970s and who spoke at several sessions of the First International Conference on Universal Design, died on June 29, just a few days after getting home from a conference where he'd been lauded for the visionary he was.
"A Quaker meeting was the best way for Ron's many friends and colleagues and neighbors to offer stories," says Conference Chair Elaine Ostroff, who attended Mace's memorial service earlier this year.
"Before the gathering in the chapel, people filed past Ron's open casket. In his shirt pocket was his latest toy, a wind airplane model. One of his miniature clay sculptures was perched on the top of the casket. Next to the casket was his wheelchair, with his corset brace and night head strap on the seat. Whew!
"No ceremony, no ritual words, No hymns--just the quiet words of many loving friends. It went on for an hour and 15 minutes. It could have gone on much longer.
"From a man who had been in the hospital with Ron at age nine during their early polio treatment days: 'There we were, naked, wrapped in these hot wool itchy blankets, facing each other. I said to Ron, "Sure is hot in here!" "Yup," he said--and we've been friends ever since.'
"A man from Ron's neighborhood: 'I only knew Ron for a few years. When the hurricane hit two years ago, Ron insisted that the crepe myrtle in his front yard that had been badly cracked by the winds could be saved. Everyone else had taken up their chain saws and were chopping up the trees. Ron figured out how to brace his crepe myrtle--and it's still alive today.'
"A man recently disabled and using a wheelchair: 'I hardly knew Ron Mace, but my ability to get around this city, to get to work, is due to his pioneering struggle. I'm grateful to have come after him.'"
Born in Jersey City, New Jersey in 1941, Ron Mace contracted polio at the age of nine. He grew up in Winston-Salem, N. C. and graduated from the School of Design at North Carolina State University in 1966 with a degree in architecture.
After four years of practicing conventional architecture, Mace became involved in the effort to produce the first building code for accessibility in the nation. This code became mandatory in North Carolina in 1973 and served as a model for other states. Mace's pioneering work in accessible design was instrumental in the passage of national legislation prohibiting discrimination against people with disabilities, the Fair Housing Amendments Act of 1988 and The Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990.
Mace was President of Barrier Free Environments, Inc., and Principal of BFE Architecture, P.A. in Raleigh. He was also Research Professor in the Architecture Department at the School of Design at North Carolina State University.
In 1989, he established the federally-funded Center for Accessible Housing (later renamed The Center for Universal Design) at the North Carolina State University School of Design. He was a Fellow of the American Institute of Architects.
"During the last few decades, when architectural schools were largely abandoning the idea that their profession included obligations of public service," says Jim Davis, "Mace continued to sail into the wind, enlarging the definition of the architectural profession's responsibilities."
In 1992, Mace received the Distinguished Service Award of the President of the United States for his work promoting dignity, equality, independence and employment of people with disabilities.
Contributions are being made to the Ronald L. Mace Memorial Fund to further Mace's vision for the future. Send to: Ronald L. Mace Memorial Fund, c/o The Center for Universal Design, Box 8613, NC State University, Raleigh, NC 27695-8613.
Activists ensure attention to MCS at conference
Another critical issue to be considered in making environments more universally usable is "multiple chemical sensitivity," or MCS. In response to concerned advocates who saw the conference advertised in the Ragged Edge, several sessions featured or noted MCS as a necessary challenge for universal designers. Mary Lamielle of the National Center for Environmental Health Strategies led a session on "Integrating the Needs of People with Multiple Chemical Sensitivities into Universal Design," organized a display of books and handouts and provided three videotapes for viewing at the conference. Paul Grayson talked about MCS in his housing session and Ron Mace noted it in his plenary session. Susan Molloy contacted a number of national groups for informational material that was distributed at the conference; Sharon Wachsler developed handouts used by presenters in the "housing" and "children's environments" sessions; and a section on MCS was added to the project website.
The flurry of interest has also led Adaptive Environments to work with Jeanne Perrin and Sharon Wachsler in organizing a session on MCS for the "Build Boston" annual architects' symposium being held this November.
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