Building a World Fit for People: Designers with Disabilities at Work is a compelling statement about significant contributions to the built environment by people with disabilities, architects and designers who participate in the design of our environments-homes, schools, workplaces, cities, transportation systems. The disability rights mantra of the 1990s applies to the design industry today more than ever: Nothing About Us Without Us is a slogan, a chant, even a book title, that implores policy- and other decision-makers to include the people most directly affected by design decisions in solving their own problems and creating better opportunities for everyone's benefit. But why is this necessary?
Design should be functional, aesthetically pleasing, safe, practical, affordable, and inclusive. Knowledge about the needs of people with disabilities comes much more reliably from people with disabilities themselves. Only people with disabilities can pass on understanding about our lives, our feelings, our wants and desires. We have seen the power of the personal history within various cultures, in the practice of African-Americans, persons of Hispanic origin, and women. Our non-disabled families and friends, and the professionals who try to help us can empathize with our lives and often contribute, but they cannot merge design knowledge with disability understanding in an intuitive way.
My father was not a quadruple congenital amputee, was not born nor did he live without arms or legs, as I have my entire life. He did contribute mightily to my wonderful, well-prepared life. But he doesn't truly know how difficult it is to open a door with a shiny round doorknob using two artificial clamps for hands or to pull these same heavy doors open. That inaccessible door was not just a physical barrier; it told me, unintentionally, that my passage through the door was not a right but merely a permission, not accomplished independently but with the help of another. This is oppression, fully despised by those of us with disabilities who are proud, free, and productive. And it is quite easily solved by universal design.
When designers with disabilities participate in the planning and design of schools, housing, landscapes, and workplaces, we gain a combination of personal experience of disability and professional design skills. When that happens, pluralism in functional use of structures and products isn't an afterthought; it is integrated into the fundamentals of design and subsequent use. And, aesthetically, our pluralistic world needs new challenges and new ideas that incorporate beauty with function. These solutions to accommodate diversity might possibly come slowly from educated non-disabled designers, but the process will be more elegant and coherent when designers with disabilities are involved from the start. It also makes the shift from them and us to we.
Ron Mace was the inspiration for this book, and for the belief that designers with disabilities are essential in the creation of a more universally accessible world. He gave us a new way of thinking; he moved us beyond believing that accessible design should be separate from mainstream design concepts and practices. He introduced us to an integrated concept of design, teaching us that universal design could fit the needs of many more people while accomplishing all that accessibility requirements offered. He challenged architects of the American Institute of Architects to create inclusive environments and make them beautiful, not medical. And, he gave people with disabilities confidence that our presence in the built world need not be a gift of kind-hearted souls, but a rightful professional association in which our experience is an essential tool-values fundamentally imbedded in the Americans with Disabilities Act. This belief makes us proud to be good citizens, engaged students, productive employees, and generous family members. That's all we've ever wanted, all we want now, and all we expect in our future. Just like everyone else.
John D. Kemp
President and CEO
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