Sunday, May 10, 2009

Superstition and Universal Design

I've been thinking a lot about universal design as we work with contractors and local agencies, charities, friends and family to figure out how to remodel our five year old home to make the first floor bathroom accessible for our daughter. 

I know, a five year old home, right? How could it not be accessible already? 

Superstition. I think it is about superstition. 

When I asked a local politician about building codes and why they were not written with this in mind, for example, why any door on any new building in our county or state would be less than wheel chair width, he said first "cost". After I finished gaffawing and pointing out how this is simply erroneous and disinformation (when you build something from scratch, that is the cheapest time to make it accessible, the cost excuse only comes into play during the remodel ordeal) he said something very insightful, and I think very true.

"Not everyone needs things to be accessible! Why build everything that way for the one person who may every use it?"

"Because," I should have said, "You may be that person. I hope it never happens, but YOU may become disabled on your way home after our conversation on universal design." Random events. It is not about luck or karma or some kind of cosmic intelligence doling out rewards to the deserving. About 10% of the population is disabled, after these wars it will be higher, and that 10% is impossible to predict. 

In our school district, more than 10% of our students have a disability, but the board and most of the community still act as if it were a 10 in 10,000 occurrence. 

The only thing I can think of is superstition. 

No one wants to act as if they could be next. No one wants to plan for life with disability when it is not part of their immediate experience. No two able bodies people want to get married and buy a house that is fully accessible, even though the odds are that it would be a good idea-- most of us in old age will need some modifications to our home, if not before. No mother wants to conceive and imagine any thing other than "healthy, ten fingers, ten toes." No district wants to imagine serving even MORE disabled students (as one member of our administration says often, "they keep coming here for the services." So, we act as if ignoring the need will some how prevent the need.

Yet houses built today will have several owners; they should last a century at least. Schools are built and will serve whoever lives within their boundaries for many decades. Sidewalks, streets, subway stations, new malls... the same. We build as if everyone were like us. 

It is way more expensive and inconvenient to remodel. 

And in my experience so far, limited though it may be, building as if disability does not exist does not ward off disability. 

The least effective way we have to deal with our fear of disability is to ignore it. To build our infrastructure as if it were exceedingly rare and unlikely. It is like throwing salt over our shoulders, saying a prayer for a spontaneous healing of Rett Syndrome. Sure, prayer can't hurt, but you might as well get off your knees and say those prayers with a wrecking bar in your hand 'cause ain't no body out there building all houses accessibly, even though a lot of babies needs it. 

And while you're down there, maybe say a prayer that people will come to their senses and build as if disability might someday effect them or someone they love. It won't bring bad luck down on any of us, and it might give the next family a better shake the next time random events play out and they need an accessible bathroom on the first floor. 

Universal Design-- it is an attitude, more than anything. Every architect should have to spend a week in a wheel chair before getting a degree.