As I began my Gopen Fellowship, I thought that describing what was accessible and what wasn’t would be simple. Just look at the architectural access code, right? Was I ever wrong.

The summer before my fellowship, I went on a family visit to an “unnamed to protect the innocent” cultural venue in Boston. Our family group included two children in strollers, one still in diapers, and an elderly relative with hearing loss, diabetic neuropathy and osteoarthritis.

We benefited from, and made use of, ramps, wide doorways, and accessible restroom stalls. But sometimes the needs of our group fell outside of the ADA Accessibility Guidelines, but still impacted our ability to enjoy the venue. We needed places to sit and rest, family restrooms and good lighting.

One size does not fit all

I realized that meaningful access is a lot more than compliance with access code and following regulations. I also realized that lack of access didn’t just affect people who identify themselves as a person with a disability.

Most elements in our environment are designed for an adult of average size without physical limitations. Those elements then need to be “adapted” for everyone else: children, people of differing heights, weights and abilities.

Universal Design

As I looked into this further, I began reading about “universal design.” It is defined as: “the design of products, environments, programs and services to be usable by all people, to the greatest extent possible, without the need for adaptation or specialized design.”

What a simple, elegant and revolutionary idea!

Access benefits everyone

When ramps and curb cuts were mandated by the Americans with Disabilities Act, many people perceived it to be a waste: a large expenditure to benefit a small number of people. Twenty years later, every parent with a stroller and every delivery person with a dolly takes them for granted. Closed captioning on television is used in noisy environments like bars and gyms all of the time.

Since one size does not fit all, it is important to “know before you go.” Finding out about accessibility is an interactive process: call, ask questions and send emails! A cultural venue is more likely to respond to an accessibility issue or need once they are made aware of it, so don’t be shy!

Nora Nagle
Nora Nagle, Guest Author

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