Access Solutions Group
Carl Lewis is the founder and principal of Access Solution Group (ASG), a consulting firm in architecture and recreational design in Palatine, Illinois. He is a presidential appointee to the Architectural and Transportation Barriers Compliance Board (Access Board) and an adjunct professor of architecture at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (UIUC).
"Teaching is my most enjoyable experience, but I find the Access Board’s work challenging and intense. As you may know, recreation issues were not in the original ADA Standards."
- Carl Lewis
He has taught architectural design for nearly eleven years. His professional architectural experience includes design work for Stone, Maraccini and Patterson in San Francisco and LCM Architects in Chicago. During a long tenure in civil service, he prepared manuals for various technical training schools at Chanute Air Force Base in Illinois, and prepared briefings of sensitive information for the Air Force Intelligence Service, and the Joint Chiefs of Staff in Washington, D.C. He also served as an architectural research specialist for the U. S. Army Corps of Engineers in Champaign.
"Teaching is my most enjoyable experience, but I find the Access Board's work challenging and intense. As you may know, recreation issues were not in the original ADA Standards. The Access Board, in recent years, has been working on these issues-children's play areas, outdoor developed play areas, and recreation venues in general: boating facilities, golf, miniature golf, fishing, and athletic facilities. I've been involved in it all, but the most demanding was the Regulatory Negotiation Committee on Children's Play, in which I was the Access Board's representative. Through these 'Reg-Neg' committees, people who are most likely to be impacted by the rules get to participate in the rule-making process. You have to manage some pretty charged meetings. They are like faculty meetings, but they last for days and don't have any breaks. Draining but rewarding."
Carl began drawing at age three, and has loved it ever since. He remembers getting in trouble for using his mother's bed sheets to demonstrate some of his earliest drawing prowess. He grew up in Orange, New Jersey, and attended Newark Arts High School, a public college-preparatory magnet school focusing on music and the arts. During this period, he was also interested in mathematics and was undecided between careers in engineering or architecture.
Initially he balked at the idea of attending the UIUC, which has an excellent reputation for accessibility. Carl, who uses a wheelchair as a result of childhood polio, felt an aversion to being "cast off with the other cripples." He began his college career at another school, which had a totally inaccessible campus. "I realized that this was not going to work. I needed to be at UIUC."
As he came to understand later, UIUC has a pivotal place in the history of the disability rights movement. After World War II, many veterans returned to college on the GI bill. But there was no place for the disabled vets in the established academic community. A long struggle in the early fifties by activist veterans resulted in UIUC becoming the first campus in the United States to begin to take access issues seriously. When Carl arrived there, UIUC was far ahead of similar institutions, but times had changed in other ways. It was the late 1960s, and "a good time to be young and away at college." Carl enjoyed himself so well with "wine, women, song, and Vietnam War protests," that he neglected his studies and had to drop out.
After working at various odd jobs, Carl found a civil service job in 1970 through an affirmative action program. During his years in civil service, Carl took any job related to rendering and architectural or graphic presentations. He worked his way up the ladder, but he still wanted to be an architect, so he chose to return to college in 1987 rather than taking the next civil service advancement.
Carl still had some credits at UIUC and was accepted into the design school on the strength of his successful civil service career. This time he readily recognized how responsive the administration was to the needs of disabled students. "They had awareness and a really positive outlook: they would change a whole class to accommodate one student with a disability. One building in the design school didn't have an elevator: I was never assigned classes there." His department also adapted a drafting table specifically for him, which they moved to each studio he attended. "Modern accessibility standards were developed from studies conducted at the University of Illinois Rehabilitation-Education Center. As a student of the university, I was exposed to the philosophy of Dr. Tim Nugent, director and founder of the center. This exposure increased my understanding not only of the physical, but also the social barriers imposed upon persons with physical disabilities."
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Carl was offered graduate teaching assistant positions while working on his first design degree, which he earned in 1990, and received a fellowship to teach architectural design while working on his master's degree. Once he finished his graduate degree in 1992, the university offered him a tenure-track teaching position. It was a financially attractive offer, and he was just starting a family, so he gladly accepted. He soon earned an Excellence in Teaching award. Since that time he has taught freshmen through graduate-level design studios, at UIUC and other universities.
Carl often gives his students an unusual "rearrange the room" assignment. They can propose any design they want that will pass inspection by a fire marshal. First he has them measure him with his wheelchair, and then they must move the furniture around so that he is able to get to each student's desk and each student is able to get to every other student's desk. "It's a challenging exercise in creating an accessible layout." This assignment engages the students in creating an accessible layout early in their studio experience. Field trips with his students provide them with more real-life understanding of universal design.
He feels that he has to be responsible for his disability. "I found that being up front is best." Carl explains, "I never approached life as a role model. When they tell me that I'm a role model, I say that I have always tried to get things done as best as I could." He also advises, "Don't be a Black Architect, a Woman Architect, a Disabled Architect. Be an architect first." And he counters some conventional wisdom by noting, "Disability doesn't automatically make you an expert on access. However, my practice IS different because I use a wheelchair; my clients listen about access issues-it makes sense to them. But I don't memorize codes. Why memorize something that's recorded?"
"What I'm good at, what I write and lecture about, is that I believe all assistive devices should be looked at as merely tools -- what I call appliances. The use of these tools and sometimes a personal assistant (another type of tool), which makes space highly personalized, has a direct impact on architectural space. I may use my wheelchair completely differently from someone with a different disability, which might suggest different use of space. To understand the implications of this, designers need to know precisely how people with disabilities use their appliances. This thesis is the basis for all my lectures. My years using a wheelchair have given me the ability to really understand kinesiology. My design philosophy is a choreography between user and assistive device or appliance, between a professional consultant and a client."
Carl used to be involved in a variety of wheelchair sports. It was through his recreational interests that he met his wife. The onset of post-polio syndrome has limited the adventures that he engages in, but he still kayaks with his sons.
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