Too often in the design world the term “accessible design” is an epithet for meeting the minimum requirements put forth by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). What’s more, many designers approach ADA regulations as a hassle and constraint rather than an opportunity to create engaging, inclusive spaces. Successful design projects are able to overcome these unfortunate pitfalls by creating inclusive best practices that aim to create spaces suited for all users.
In their recently published set of guidelines for universal design, the American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA) points out that due to the ADA’s “focus on technical aspects of accessibility over experiential quality, ADA standards often result in spaces that are still very challenging for people with disabilities to access, leaving them physically and mentally disconnected from public life.” The ASLA’s call for design practitioners to consider accessible public space more thoughtfully and thoroughly needs to reach beyond landscape architects, however. Interior designers, planners, and architects should be working in tandem to create spaces for people of varying abilities to enjoy together, by integrating inclusive design practices into their work.
Kat Holmes, an advocate for equitable design in the tech world, argues that an inclusive designer “is anyone who recognizes and remedies mismatched interactions between people and their world.” However, when all of the people in the room are able-bodied designers, it’s challenging to properly design spaces that go beyond simply accommodating differently abled-people and instead foster a true sense of belonging for all populations. Holmes’ call for inclusive design is not asking designers to think differently—she’s calling on designers to diversify their practices, while subtly asking those in the most privileged positions to step back so that others who have previously been excluded are empowered to participate in the design process.
While the design field has made strides in designing the built environment to be more accessible to people with mobility disabilities, these practices are often not fully inclusive of people with other disabilities, like neurodevelopmental disabilities, deafness, or low-vision. Designing for low-sighted users, in particular, has historically received less attention in discourse and practices around universal design.
According to the World Health Organization, somewhere around 1.3 billion people, who make up 17 percent of the global population, have some kind of visual impairment. “Intersections, poorly-lit spaces, and sudden level changes” are just some of the obstacles people with low-vision encounter in the built environment, according to the ASLA. Many designers are finding ways to improve areas in the built environment that are uncomfortable or dangerous for people with low-sightedness. However, design thinking must expand beyond remedying public spaces that pose environmental hazards to people with disabilities. In particular, design institutions predominantly led by non-disabled people need to go beyond doing their homework and reading up on best practices. Additionally, design firms need to make a programmatic shift to include people from diverse fields and with different ability levels in the design process.
Recently, the disability community has become a strong voice in conversations around accessibility and inclusion at Boston City Hall Plaza, which is currently undergoing a renovation project led by Sasaki. With its stepped terraces and uniform brick surface, the existing plaza has long been criticized as an inhospitable place for people of diverse abilities. The renovation design, which aims to re-invigorate the civic heart of Boston into a more welcoming and inclusive place for all, prioritizes universal access. "Sloped walkways ensure that everyone, no matter whether they are pushing a stroller, using a wheelchair or walking with a service animal, can arrive at the people's plaza together, by the same routes as their friends and neighbors," says Sasaki associate principal Kate Tooke. "This is a core value of the project, not just a requirement of ADA."
Throughout the design process, the team has been receiving feedback from the disability community about how the team can go above and beyond the standard accessibility protocols. The low-vision community, specifically, has expressed that the plaza needs better and more consistent wayfinding throughout the space. Beyond employing the standard tactile warning strips at crosswalks, the team is looking into incorporating materials with different tones and textures to help guide low-vision visitors along the plaza’s main routes. “Creating a welcoming space for a community as diverse as Boston means taking the time to understand what specific constituents need, and weaving that into the overall project design narrative,” explains Tooke.
Outside of project work, Sasaki designers also have the opportunity to integrate inclusive design principals into their practice by engaging with the diverse programming put forth by The Sasaki Foundation, a 501c3 organization that operates independently from Sasaki. The Foundation is housed in the Incubator at Sasaki, the firm’s flexible research studio and shared work space. The Foundation, which serves as the Incubator’s steward and curator, is an organization committed to fostering equity and inclusivity in the design industry through their engagement with community members, organizations, and Sasaki volunteers. The Foundation sponsors research and programs that empower communities and strengthen education in design.
“The programming at the Sasaki Foundation is an opportunity for us to show our communities that the power of design belongs to all of us,” says Mary Anne Ocampo, Sasaki principal and chair of the Sasaki Foundation’s Board of Trustees.
The Sasaki Foundation’s Design Grants program gives local change-makers the opportunity to apply for design research funding, a workspace in the Incubator, and professional design advising. In 2018, an interdisciplinary research team, “Please Touch the Art,” received a Design Grant to curate of a multi-sensory art exhibit as a creative community building measure.
“We want the Incubator to be a hub of activity that democratizes design by bringing together innovators and entrepreneurs all of backgrounds,” says Alexandra Lee, executive director of the Sasaki Foundation. “The Foundation aims to diversify the voices involved in shaping the built environment through our work with civic leaders, practitioners, educators, and community organizations. The ‘Please Touch the Art’ team brought people in multiple fields together to make a difference in their community.”
“Conveyance” by Melissa Chaney plays music when visitors run their hands over its surface.
The team, Karissa Coady, Matt Jatkola, Georgina Kleege, Roberta Miller, Tanja Milojevic, and Aneleise Ruggles took the grant as an opportunity to develop a model for accessible art exhibits. The team, who is primarily made up of staff from the Mosesian Center for the Arts, worked with the Foundation staff, Sasaki designers, the Perkins School for the Blind, and local artists to design and curate an exhibit that they say has been years in the making.
A piece of art with live moss growing in it produced by Sasaki landscape architect Ponnappa Prakkamakul, whose other work includes a series of benches with braille overlay for an art installation in Boston’s Chinatown.
The exhibit’s curator, Georgina Kleege, is a blind author and scholar who worked with the team to create an exhibit that would directly impact visitors of all abilities. The exhibit, Kleege says, “makes us conscious of the double meaning of feeling: both in terms of touch but also in terms of emotion.” The team hoped this emotional traction would build empathy within the Watertown community—which they did by including the community in the exhibit: over 90% of the art on display was created by local artists, 25% of whom are blind or low-vision. In addition to bringing an influx of new visitors to the art center each week, the team found that visitors spent more time interacting with each piece of art, even if many of the sighted visitors were nervous about touching the art at first.
“Extreme Weather,” a quilt created by students at the Perkins School for the Blind.
Part of what made the exhibit so successful was the involvement of staff and faculty at the Perkins School for the Blind, who provided the team with a network of resources, scholars, organizations, and insights on accessibility in the arts. The Perkins School for the Blind was founded over 175 years ago as the first school for blind students in the United States. The school’s multifaceted programming reaches local and international populations with models for accessible learning. With a library in Watertown, online learning options, international educational leadership, and their accredited day and residential programs on their main campus, Perkins is a role model for creating accessible practices in and beyond the classroom.
In 2007, Sasaki had the opportunity to work with the Perkins School for the Blind as a project partner on the Watertown Riverfront Park and Braille Trail, a quarter-mile stretch along the Charles River that culminates in a multi-sensory garden space. The Sasaki team took an underutilized section of path and parkland along the river and transformed it into an accessible public resource available to the Watertown community. With the Perkins School for the Blind being so close to the trail, members of the Sasaki design team, who are sighted, felt it was especially important to work with blind and low-sighted individuals to develop a design in an area where the terrain could be potentially hazardous.
In addition to stabilizing eroded riverbanks, Sasaki designed a wire trail guiding system for low-sighted and blind visitors to use to navigate independently. The cable guiding system has different-shaped indicator beads to identify where park features and seating opportunities are located.
Perkins School for the Blind alumni and community members move along the trail.
With physically handicapped and elderly people’s needs in mind, the team also installed continuous seating options along the trail so users can rest and enjoy nature. The picnic tables along the trail were custom-designed with open ends to allow for someone using a wheelchair to easily pull up to the table. Sasaki landscape architect Travis Mazerall, ASLA intended the park’s design to “strengthen users' connection to nature in an accessible way for all to enjoy."
In the park’s sensory garden, a clearing in the heart of the Braille Trail planned around existing vegetation, the team added fragrant native plantings that attract birds, pollinators and other wildlife. They also planted trees with interesting bark texture, like river birch, and included many other tactile and sonic features, like a musical marimba bench engraved with a poem written in braille by Mitch Ryerson, a local artist.
The sensory garden includes many tactile sculptural pieces created by artist Mitch Ryerson, like hand-crafted boats for community members to sit in.
Perkins proofed all of the braille text used for the trail’s signage and weighed in on design elements to confirm that signs were mounted at the correct height, the cable trail guide was accessible, and that braille messaging strategies would effectively reach a low-sighted audience. Construction was completed in 2016, and Phase 2 of the project is underway now.
Perkins continues to pioneer accessible wayfinding today by taking advantage of the latest smartphone technology. Their new app, BlindWays, crowdsources geographic data about bus stops to help someone with blindness or low-vision locate the stop’s exact location. BlindWays is one of many examples of how Perkins puts inclusive design principals into practice. Perkins saw a problem: locating bus stops can be very challenging depending on how the stop is marked, and, in turn, people often miss the bus because they were standing too far from the stop. Perkins found a solution to this accessibility challenge by innovating new forms of wayfinding.
Developing Interdisciplinary Best Practices
Like the Braille Trail, Please Touch the Art worked with an environment that could potentially exclude blind or low-sighted people. Through their inclusive design process, the team found many creative solutions that made the space safer to navigate and more engaging to visitors.
“Please Touch the Art’ is not for blind people; it’s accessible to people who are visually impaired,” explains Aneleise Ruggles, Director of Exhibitions at The Mosesian Center for the Arts. At the exhibit, low-sighted and blind individuals don’t have to request special accommodations as they do at many museums and art centers. “People have the agency to take whichever navigation tools they choose,” says Matt Jatkola, Creative Services Manager at the Mosesian Center for the Arts.
Tactile maps representing the art center’s three floors.
One of the navigational tools available to patrons when they enter the art center is a tactile map created by Sasaki architectural designer Marija Draskic. The art center is now working with Draskic to make these maps a permanent fixture as part of their ongoing commitment to delivering a more accessible experience.
The Sasaki Foundation connected the team with Draskic, who has experience in model-making and curatorial work. In working with the team, Draskic was able to deepen her understanding of universal design in her practice. “I had to use a completely different way of looking at models and space in general,” Draskic says.
This was not the first time Draskic worked on accessible art, however. In her home country of Serbia, she worked as a program coordinator for the NGO Art Distrikt Pozarevac, where she helped artists develop work in “Tactile Exhibition,” an exhibit where sighted people were encouraged to wear blindfolds when interacting with the artwork. “I’m grateful for how the exhibit made me reevaluate my own understanding of space early in my career. For instance, I studied which objects might become obstacles for people with low-vison,” reflects Draskic. “I was also struck by how interactive exhibits raise awareness and make people think differently. They’re engaging and uplifting for everybody—that's what truly makes them inclusive.”
“Tactile Exhibition,” an exhibit Marija worked on in Serbia. Photo courtesy of Galerija Matice Srpske.
Coincidentally, when Draskic began working with Please Touch the Art, she crossed paths with fellow Serbian Tanja Milojevic, Braille Production Specialist at the Perkins Library in Watertown, Massachusetts. In addition to producing braille descriptions for all of the pieces in the exhibit, Milojevic taught Draskic how she could improve her tactile maps with slight variations in texture. Draskic learned that although using different colors in the maps makes them more visually appealing, it also changes the texture of the material and therefore signals information to low-sighted users, as well.
A diagram of the first floor of the art center that Draskic used when designing her models.
At Sasaki’s Fabrication Studio, Draskic used the laser cutter and scrap materials to push her design concept in new directions. She drew inspiration from Chris Downey, an architect who lost his sight in his thirties and has continued practicing architecture, innovating new ways to interact with architectural documents by creating tactile floor plans using raised paper and plastic materials. “With my eyes I was more passive,” he told the American Institute of Architects in a short documentary. “I’m always very careful to say I’m without sight, not without vision,”
Like Draskic, Sasaki principal and vice chair of the Sasaki Foundation Christine Dunn, AIA, also reconsidered her preconceptions as an architect about how people interact with space after taking part in one of Please Touch the Art’s work sessions in the Incubator. “I don’t need to base my designs so heavily in my visual perception of space,” reflects Dunn. “Working from a perspective that elevates accessibility should be seen as an opportunity for designers to approach their work in entirely new ways, with more depth and innovation.”
“And empathy,” she adds.
Designing with inclusion in mind also encourages practitioners to create best practices in their work—an ongoing process that requires engagement with many different stakeholders and their diverse needs and backgrounds. The Please Touch the Art team saw their project as an opportunity to create new best practices in accessible curation that the art center could continue using. In addition to improved wayfinding and braille overlay on artist statements, the team trained a dozen people to guide visually impaired people through the gallery. They also made curatorial changes, like installing art a few inches lower so it is accessible to people in wheelchairs. Going forward, team members from the art center also plan to ask artists if it is okay for visitors to touch their art when they submit work.
“Embracers,” by Julia Cseko, encourages visitors to “wear” weighted fabric sculptures.
“We realized these practices can be universally applied to Mosesian’s programming and operations,” says Jatkola. “We hope the practices we’ve established in ‘Please Touch the Art’ can extend to other local organizations who want to be more inclusive.”
According to the Mass Cultural Council, the project is a very successful model. The MCC accepted Mosesian Center for the Arts into the Universal Participation Initiative, a set of programs that commends and supports organizations committed to making cultural facilities in Massachusetts more inclusive.
The Responsibility of Design in the 21st Century
It’s no secret that economic, ethical and social values have been the primary drivers of change in design trends throughout history, and we can recognize the strides we’ve made towards designing more welcoming spaces for people with disabilities. Boston City Hall is a great case-study of how design has the ability to lead the way toward incremental change. In 1968, Boston’s City Hall received an accessibility award at the time it was built, which really shows how far our expectations of and standards for accessibility have come in the last half a century.
As design principles continue to evolve, today’s designers must consider a breadth of complex issues like equity and inclusion, which go hand in hand with environmental issues like sustainability and climate change. In order to design a better future, we can look to institutions like Perkins School for the Blind as leaders of the global movement around accessibility, individuals like Chris Downey who pioneer new kinds of design thinking, and community-oriented groups like Please Touch the Art who are making waves in their local art scene. At Sasaki, we can look to our founder Hideo Sasaki’s vision as guiding principal design that ripples through all of work.
“Contribution is the only value…for it brings the advantage of giving more than one person’s slant to a problem, and shows how differences may be harmonized by active discussion," Sasaki, 1957.
To be a relevant designer in this day and age, you must employ a vast range of soft and hard skills that can only be achieved through inclusion, collaboration, diverse team-building, and nimble design-thinking methodologies. Complexity in design is here to stay, and the biggest challenge for designers is not to see inclusion and accessibility as obstacles, but simply as opportunities that can be leveraged to turn good design into great design.