Universidade Federal de Minas Gerais
Belo Horizonte, Brazil
Marcelo Guimaraes is an assistant professor at the Universidade Federal de Minas Gerais, in Belo Horizonte, Brazil, and the director of ADAPTSE, the university's research lab on accessibility issues. He earned his bachelor's degree in architecture at this same university, in the School of Architecture and Urban Planning (EA-UFMG), in 1982, and a master's in architecture from the School of Architecture and Planning at the University at Buffalo, in 1991. He has recently begun his doctoral study at the College of Design, North Carolina State University (NCSU). The main focus of Marcelo's career is research and education. He aims at making Brazil a more inclusive society for people with disabilities.
"When I was younger, I accepted barriers almost as an inevitable part of the landscape. Now, even though I must cope with some steps and many attitudinal barriers, I challenge, politely, of course, any and all authorities that stand in the way of a barrier-free world."
- Marcelo Pinto Guimaraes
While working for a Brazilian state agency as a specialist in barrier-free design, Marcelo became very interested in human factors research related to the Enabler, a conceptual matrix developed by Edward Steinfeld and Rolf Faste that presented users' needs in terms of functional limitations. The Enabler provided descriptive information useful to designers, while avoiding disability-specific terminology. In 1989, sponsored by the Brazilian government (CNPq), he moved to the United States with a short-term scholarship to the University at Buffalo There, he had the full support of Professor Steinfeld, who encouraged Marcelo's participation in many of his research activities. Building on that scholarship, he entered the master's program where he developed his thesis on behavioral factors related to the social impact of accessibility. Marcelo applied his thesis in the assessment of the City of Buffalo's light rail transit system.
In 2001, the Brazilian government (CAPES) awarded him a full scholarship, in order to pursue the Ph.D. degree in design at NCSU. His major goals are to verify academic strategies for both user participation in the design process as well as the user interface of computer applications to enhance design solutions for people of different abilities and ages. Marcelo is now involved with teaching universal design for junior and senior architecture students in an experimental program located in the Center for Universal Design. This experience will provide useful research to the College of Design about ways that the Principles of Universal Design, developed by the Center, lead to a more holistic approach to design.
When he returns to Brazil, Marcelo will introduce an emphasis on universal design education in the Ph.D. program at EA-UFMG. The goal is to create a new generation of professors of architectural design, graphic design, and landscape design who will advocate for better quality of the built environment through user-centered design. In Marcelo's perspective, universal design is a strong conceptual tool that is closely related to sustainable and ecological design and he believes that "Universal design is at the forefront of the process for cultural changes toward a truly inclusive society."
Marcelo helped found the Independent Living Center of Belo Horizonte on the grounds of the School of Architecture EA-UFMG in 1995. Since then, he has acted as president, vice-president, chief councilor, and director of the technical staff. In addition to his administrative and teaching duties, Marcelo consulted on making public buildings and private homes accessible, using the concept of universal design as his touchstone. In order to promote universal design in his country, Marcelo has served on committees, traveled, lectured, organized conferences, and conducted research. His most recent major research effort developed a tool that incorporates universal design in evaluating accessibility in cities, buildings, products, and services. It uses a rating scale of 1-5 that ranks design solutions in a way that the reader may compare choices and gain a broader understanding of the relationship between accessibility features.
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When he was a boy, Marcelo's family encouraged him to explore his talent for quick drawing, drafting, and painting. He did not imagine there was a professional career for which these skills would be useful. As a high school student, he thought of becoming a physician, publisher, or historian, or perhaps a journalist or writer, but not an architect. It was only in trying to get into university that he began to consider studying environmental design. In Brazil, where there is stiff competition among secondary school students for entrance to the university, there were seventeen students for every opening when Marcelo began in 1977.
Marcelo has mobility impairments following the poliomyelitis that he caught as a child. He spent most of his early childhood in rehabilitation but never went to a special school. He uses a wheelchair regularly and Canadian crutches occasionally. Marcelo developed a strong sense of self-reliance growing up, "since childhood I knew I had to work hard to compensate for the problems I had. I felt they were my problems, and I had to solve them."
There were no special accommodations at university for Marcelo. "Once I passed my entrance exam I was on my own. Even as a faculty member, the many barriers to mobility made the campus difficult for me to negotiate." When he was a student, there were no services for disabled students. Using canes in those days, Marcelo had to carry around a heavy load of books, blueprints, rulers, a T-square, architectural models, etc. The only special service came from his sister, who gave him a 1975 Volkswagen Beetle, adapted for his use. "That car became a natural extension of my body."
Soon after he returned from the United States with his master's degree, Marcelo became discouraged by the lack of understanding of barrier-free design. "I had finished my undergraduate course of architecture without learning to design barrier-free buildings."
"Most professors in the School of Architecture tell students to create accessible environments, but these professors do not know how to evaluate accessibility. No one presses them to learn about it. In the end, professors pretend they have taught students about accessibility and the students pretend they have learned something useful." So Marcelo organized a conference to discuss strategies for promoting accessibility issues in the curriculum, inviting Steinfeld from the United States and Theo van der Voordt from the Netherlands.
While some progress has been made, Marcelo feels there is much farther to go. Even in the building where he worked in Belo Horizonte, there is a "huge step" at the front door that the administration is unwilling to change because the building is historically protected. None of Marcelo's clients have made adaptations for his disability, and even his family members fail to consider his disability in the building of new homes or the renovation of older ones. One thing that has changed is Marcelo's attitude and resolve. "When I was younger, I accepted barriers almost as an inevitable part of the landscape. Now, even though I must cope with some steps and many attitudinal barriers, I challenge, politely, of course, any and all authorities that stand in the way of a barrier-free world."
Marcelo got married in 1986. His first daughter, Luanna, was born in 1990 in Buffalo, New York, and a second daughter, Clara, came into the world five years later. Being a father who has disabilities has given him many interesting reflections about his social roles. "When I put my children to bed, I sit them on my lap and play with them as being their taxi driver. In a way, I see them less concerned about my physical problems than alert to the social aspects of barriers that are around our little family. I feel rewarded that my personal experience and professional career serve my children to make them sensible for the need for change into an inclusive society. I am sure they will be ready for that."
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