Interior Design and the ADA

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By Katie la Kapro / Published by Katie la Kapro
Our story begins in Saudi Arabia in the 1950s.

 Josephine, a California girl with two babies and another on the way, contracted polio only two years after moving the family to Dhahran on a grand adventure set into motion by her husband’s job in the refinery business. The disease would take her unborn child and bind her to a wheelchair for the rest of her life. 

 Little did she know, her disability would influence the future of accessibility and inclusivity in the way we think about interior design throughout the nation. 

 Josephine found it entirely impossible to get around Saudi Arabia in a wheelchair, so the family moved back to the US in 1960. She was a teacher by trade, and when she tried to get a teaching job in California, she found that it was against the law for people with disabilities to teach in a classroom. (A problem she circumvented by teaching in Catholic schools for the next 20 years.) In the 1980s Josephine and her husband moved to Washington state where she worked tirelessly to ensure the accessibility of parks, hiking trails, and public transportation. The state of Washington is now home to some of the best wheelchair accessible trails in the country. 

 This period marked the beginning of a shift in cultural awareness, one that has come to influence the work of every home designer in the nation. 

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Wheelers in Snoqualmie National Park, WA

Wheelers in Snoqualmie National Park, WA

What is the ADA?

The Americans with Disabilities Act was enacted in 1990 to prevent discrimination towards people with disabilities. It gives these individuals equal opportunity to find jobs, use public transportation, and access government services. In other words, it made it illegal for the state of California not to hire Josephine as a teacher simply because of her reliance upon a wheelchair. 

 In 2010, the ADA was updated to include specific building and design requirements that would make public buildings accessible to people with limited mobility. This is where the designers come in. 

 The 2010 ADA update established specific requirements for new construction -- things like requiring that handrails are mounted 34-38 inches above a surface in order to be reachable by everyone regardless of whether they’re standing or seated. They’re the simplest of design requirements, really. And yet it’s these simple things that utterly failed people with disabilities until very recently. 

 It’s only thanks to the tireless efforts of disability rights advocates like Josephine that the general population’s awareness is changing.

Accessible bedroom storage

Accessible bedroom storage

How does the ADA affect interior design?

First and foremost, the purpose of the ADA design guidelines is to ensure that people with disabilities will no longer struggle to access public places and events. It’s a way of recognizing that they’ve been marginalized from society. It’s also our society’s best attempt to fix the physical barriers that ignorance put in place. 

To that end, the designers who are most immediately affected by the ADA are those who work on public structures like libraries, government buildings, offices, storefronts, and medical facilities. They’re the ones who are intimately familiar with the twists and turns -- or lack thereof -- in the construction requirements set out by the ADA. 

 Interior designers who work within private residences are not required to follow ADA guidelines. 

They can make their designs as fun and topsy-turvy as they please, putting creative expression before any other considerations. Of course, a good designer understands the importance of balancing innovation with practicality in design. We’re talking about people’s homes; we want them to be able to live comfortably in them. 

Wheelchair accessible open-layout kitchen

Wheelchair accessible open-layout kitchen

The evolution of interior design

The ADA has served to open the public’s eyes to the struggles of an entire population of US citizens who have been relegated to the sidelines because of frustratingly simple barriers like, for example, a set of stairs. 

 Most social issues of inclusivity are mind-bogglingly complex, so it’s pretty great when such a problem can be fixed by an act as simple as adding a ramp.

Because the inaccessibility solution is so straightforward, it’s no surprise that designers are starting to take note. The concept of universal design is a topic of conversation around the nation. The idea behind universal design is to build spaces that are accessible to everyone, regardless of age, ability, or any other separating factors. This kind of design incorporates elements like one-story living, wide doorways and hallways, extra floor space, and accessible counter tops. Even the simplest alterations, like replacing hard-to-clean surfaces with easily maintainable stainless steel, can make a world of difference to a homeowner who doesn’t have the benefit of those extra few feet of torque when they’re scrubbing down the kitchen. 

The downfall to universal design is that, if gone unchecked, it could lead to some Really. Boring. Spaces. But in the hands of the most creative design minds of the era, we really shouldn’t have anything to worry about. The only fathomable reason for a universally accessible space to fall into the realm of ‘boring’ would be because somewhere a designer isn’t having enough fun with his or her job. 

 Josephine would be the first to point out, that of all the problems a person could face, thinking up creative and innovative ways to design a space that all people can enjoy is an easily surmountable task. Especially for a designer. A little creativity can go a long way in bettering someone’s world.