Diversity in Design: Celebrating Accessible Spaces


Today is a good day to celebrate how design can promote diversity. And we’ll let some others in the design community do the talking. Grace Bonney, eloquent as ever, puts into words the grief, fear and disappointment that we’re feeling as the reality of November 9th (and the next four years) dawns on us. The host of a reality TV show and billionaire owner of several casinos with no prior political experience is now Commander in Chief of the United States. However, I will choose (in my sleep deprived state) to use this platform for some measure of good, and to highlight the design and architecture work of some of the communities we’d like to champion, starting with design for and by the disabled community. Also please take a moment to read this accessible writing guide and get familiar with the preferred terminology and language when referring to people with disabilities.

Karen Braitmayer

With nearly two decades of experience consulting and designing accessible spaces, Braitmayer, a wheelchair user, has added countless nuance and ground-up strategy to spaces to accommodate all manners of human navigation. She also has a wonderful blog. Aside from Braitmayer’s training services and seminars, and long list of clients, which include T Mobile and Starbucks, she performs an assessment and strategic service in tandem with long term care plans for elderly and disabled persons. She takes stock of a private residence and, considering the needs of its occupants, prepares drawings to modify or adapt it to a customized dwelling for a particular person or family. Since the disabled community contains as much diversity as any other (and therefore a few general modifications may not serve everyone enough) this is an excellent resource that Seattle is lucky to have.

Michael Graves

After Graves, a prominent designer best known for his work with Target and the best-selling Alessi tea kettle, contracted a virus that paralyzed him from the chest down, he realized design was in the details for people with disabilities. Whether it was picking up a piece of paper, opening a door, seeing oneself in a mirror or looking out the window, poor, or exclusionary design was incredibly frustrating. He began to empathize with others who had mobility disabilities and injuries, such as veterans of war. “The reliance on others that these designs necessitate,” Graves said in a Washington Post article “creates a feeling of hopelessness.” Good design with wheelchair-height facilities, accessible products and wide hallways (to allow two wheelchairs to pass each other) go miles in increasing the comfort and ease of use for disabled people. Check out the St. Coletta School and its design here.

Cathy Purple Cherry

Cherry, the mother of a son with Autism and the sibling of a brother with Down Syndrome creates accessible spaces to accommodate intellectual disabilities that are fun, engaging and safe. Cherry considers color through the lens of her clients. For someone with attention disorders, she might prize muted colors that aren’t stimulating. For a client with intellectual disabilities, perhaps bright colors would provide just the right amount of stimulus to aid in concentration. From her website: “Patterns can be used to help guide students through a space by clearly defining circulation paths. Multi-sensory stimulation can also assist with sensory-deprived brains and has been shown to improve sociability amongst some individuals. Finally, cheerful colors, whether subtle or bold depending on user population, eliminate the users’ and visitors’ impression of institutionalism that is of utmost importance in promoting esteem for this community.” Cherry also focuses on supporting personal space, something which special needs individuals often have difficulty navigating. Additionally her designs focus on the whole picture that is lending support to aneurotypical processing, whether that is adjusting lighting, background noise or other stimuli to meet the needs of the people occupying the space. Check out the drawings for the Lakemary Center in Kansas, an accessible school.

TreeHouse Guys

Interiors have ADA guidelines, but what about the great outdoors? Chris Haake and James Roth made it their mission to create accessible treehouses and have worked with camps across the nation to make this magical experience doable for people with motor disabilities and wheelchair users. Mt. Airy Park in Cincinnati, OH is a public beneficiary of one of these treehouses, but the pair has brought their treehouse to numerous public and private camps and parks, too. Using brackets and anchors to support the weight of the chairs, the duo devised a system that limits damage to trees, while providing gently sloping ramps to lift kids up and away to the treehouse of their dreams.


Ross Chapin Architecture

Ross Chapin Architecture worked to develop a Pocket Neighborhood named Luna Azul in Phoenix that would house adults with intellectual disabilities for the longterm. The parent who initiated the project said it would give him peace of mind to know his daughter, an adult with an intellectual disability who requires assistance, would have a place to live safely and peacefully even after he was gone. The neighborhood which consists of about 30 homes that would be funded privately, but would use pooled resources from a trust or individual parents to provide for shared resources within the community. Luna Azul will offer a gated-community like experience, that is customized for its residents.

Let’s keep making the world more inclusive, accessible and welcoming, whether through design, conversation or your desired medium. Leave suggestions down below if you’re so inclined.

Our header image is from the ADA National Network. They have many great resources on accessible spaces, including the one above which is actually for temporary event spaces.