The Importance of Accessibility in Architecture

Great architectural design is inclusive to everyone, especially those with physical limitations. The value of accessibility in architecture should never be underestimated. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC),  1 in 4 adults in the United States have some type of disability. Every person with a disability must cross a street and access shopping centers, health facilities, offices, hotels, and homes.

The Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA)  is a federal law prohibiting discrimination against people with disabilities in everyday activities. The ADA Standards for Accessible Design say what is required for a building or facility to be physically accessible to people with disabilities and serves as a guideline for architects. Let’s take a closer look at who accessible architecture is designed for, highlight inclusive buildings, and what one can do to create an accessible workplace.    

Who Is Accessible Architecture Designed For?  

To answer the question of who is accessible architecture designed for, one must first look at what is the definition of accessible according to the ADA: 

“Accessible: Refers to a site, facility, work environment, service, or program that is easy to approach, enter, operate, participate in, and/or use safely and with dignity by a person with a disability.”

Disability is not only about physical impairments – it includes neurodiversity and mental health. Accessibility in architecture should go beyond legal requirements and focus on creating spaces that are functional and user-friendly for everyone. It is also not limited to new construction, but extends to renovation and retrofitting existing buildings. 

Promoting Equal Opportunities Through Accessible Design  

It is challenging to design for every type of disability. However, buildings and structures can be designed for equal opportunities access and movement for the majority of persons with disabilities. What should accessible design include? 

Physical features. Ramps, elevators, widened doorways, and accessible restrooms.

Wayfinding. Intuitive layouts, color contrast, and clear signage.

Sensory considerations. Auditory signals, visual cues, and tactile indicators. 

Social spaces. Spaces encouraging engagement among people with and without disabilities.      

In 2019, a modern library was opened in Queens, New York. There were many public discussions about design features that did not allow people with disabilities equal access to all sections of the library. Many book terraces were only accessible via stairs, and the five-story building had only one elevator.

Architectural Contributions to an Inclusive Society   

Since 2001, The Paralyzed Veterans of America (PVA) organization has handed out the “Barrier-Free America Award”, recognizing exemplary accessible architectural design projects. PVA feels an inclusive society must have buildings easily accessible for persons in wheelchairs, senior adults using walkers, and parents pushing strollers. Most recently, the award was given to the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. Previous winners include Morgan’s Wonderland & Inspiration Island and the historic Virginia Governor’s Mansion.

Creating Accessibility in the Workplace Through Design   

The Bureau of Labor Statistics indicates that in 2023, 22.5 percent of people with a disability were employed. How do we create accessibility in the workplace through design that makes everyone feel welcome and valued? Include the following:

Physical design. Ramps and lifts to access various levels, user-friendly furniture and equipment layouts, cabinets and drawers with low-level handles and knobs, adjustable desks and chairs. Tactile surfaces on floors and walls for the visually impaired. 

Neurodiverse design. Quiet zones with limited sensory input and areas that provide stimulation. 

Mental health design. Soothing spaces with biophilic elements like art and plants.  

Seth A. Leeb is a residential and commercial architect serving New Jersey for more than twenty-five years. Seth and the team are also active in the non-profit sector, including designing and building residences for Morris Habitat for Humanity. Due to our years of experience in different areas of architecture, we respect the importance of accessibility and make it a priority in every project. Contact us today for a consultation or visit our website to learn more about accessibility in residential and commercial architecture here: https://leeb-architecture.com/

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