It is a rare experience when stairs, a structure built for function, becomes a wall that traps rather than frees. A scholar on disability rights once told me that much of architecture is a practice of active forgetting. Architectural design that does not accommodate everyone can reflect our ambivalence about sensory and physical disabilities. It reflects privilege for those who do not grow up in a world full of social and physical barriers.
Universal design was a term coined by the architect Ronald L. Mace. He was stricken with polio at age nine and became a wheelchair user. Mace was carried up and down the stairs of North Carolina State University so that he could attend class. In his pioneering work, he believed that good design should accommodate everyone, regardless of the person’s age or physical ability. The concept of universal design entered public policy in the early 1970s, helping make Washington landmarks like the U.S. Capitol and the Kennedy Center accessible for individuals with sensory or physical handicaps.
Universal design is largely absent in the built environment of many urban locales.
When I first met Edith Prentiss, she gave me a forensic account of New York City’s mass transit system: the wide gaps between the platform and a subway car can catch or break wheels, steep ramps and high counters do not follow guidelines of the Americans with Disabilities Act, many passageways are too narrow and elevators are in disrepair. An ill-timed maneuver or heavy flow of pedestrian traffic could mean falling off of the edge and onto the tracks.
“There’s a lot to learn about things,” Prentiss said during one of our subway rides down to Lower Manhattan in the middle of winter. Recent snowfall had melted and she was finally able to navigate around piles of snow. “The whole way of jumping, of grabbing, of pulling yourself to get on and off of the train. I call it flopping. Flop onto the platform.”
Prentiss also uses the city’s accessible buses and a service called Access-A-Ride, a van that must be reserved a day or two in advance. For many, both Access-A-Ride and commuting through the subway is often a maze of an experience. Using the van can add three to six hours onto a trip while broken subway elevators can turn you around to find accessible stations.
Documenting the built environment as experienced by a person using a wheelchair is an example of how design—whether virtual, social or physical—dictates experience, perception and our shared space.