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Building a World Fit for People: Designers with Disabilities at Work

Preface

Ron Mace, FAIA, a visionary and pioneer, was our beloved friend and respected colleague. When he died unexpectedly in 1998, his friends and colleagues were struck by how few people had his experience and perspective. Ron had elevated the discussion about accessibility into public policy debates on civil rights, and then translated the philosophy into practical solutions. Ruth Lusher of the Department of Justice in talking about Ron, said,  He was on everything. If he wasn't running it, he was on the advisory board.  Even when he was very young, he had a profound influence wherever he went. John Dalrymple of North Carolina remembered,  In 1970 we heard about this architect at Fayetteville Tech. We invited Ron to be our advisor [to the Governor's Study Commission on Architectural Barriers]. For the first time, when we sat down with builders and they brought up problems, we had an articulate, knowledgeable architect to show them how to do it. 

The Access to Design Professions project is a living memorial to Ron. It was created to honor his legacy, to continue his work, and to help fulfill one of his wishes,  to create an international network of designers with disabilities.  The project's goal is to make it possible for more people with disabilities to come into design professions or to stay in the professions once they're there, and to make their contributions to universal design.

We knew that the way to support the career development of people with disabilities in the design professions was to get detailed information from those who had succeeded. We wanted to learn about their earliest motivations, what helped or hindered their study and work, and how they wanted to be involved in the project. We identified thirty-three designers around the world to interview. Daniel Hunter, the project research associate, was the ideal person to be involved in these intimate conversations. A graduate student in landscape architecture and a man with a progressive disability, he was able to engage in conversations with the other designers as no one else could have. Time and again, Daniel told us, interviewees said to him,  No one has ever asked me these questions. I've never had a chance to tell this story.  Strong needs were identified by the research, including needs for mentors, networking, and ways to make people aware that design can be a satisfying profession for people with disabilities. The conclusions of the research note:  Studio based education in architecture, landscape architecture, interior architecture and industrial design is often inaccessible to students with disabilities. Teaching the techniques and goals of universal or inclusive design in design school programs is an ironic endeavor when design schools themselves are inaccessible, and design professionals see people with disabilities as a user group, rather than as potential peers and colleagues. Design education is improved when people with disabilities participate, and the practice of design will also improve when people with disabilities are recruited, educated and supported in the design professions.  A distillation of the research, organized around key issues, is included at the end of the book.

Building a World Fit for People builds on Hunter's research. Writer Mark Limont followed up with each person to create these stories, which document a generation of people who have had an unprecedented experience. The designers, sixteen men and five women, come from six countries and four continents. Most have studied architecture, two are landscape architects, one is an industrial designer, and one is an environmental designer. They work in large and small design offices, government agencies, or universities. A few have created their own firms-sometimes out of necessity when no one would hire them-and two are primarily advocates, preferring to devote themselves to volunteer advocacy for accessibility. These designers have varied passions and interests. Some have just begun to work, others are mid-career, and a few, senior in their professions, have international reputations.

This book is for young people with disabilities, to let them know that design-related work is an opportunity for them. It is for design students with disabilities, to introduce them to people who have come before them and are eager to be their mentors. It is for working-or out of work-designers with disabilities, to introduce them to an international network of connections to colleagues. It is for career counselors, to confirm that design is a profession that youngsters with disabilities can enter; and for the many design teachers who have never had a student with a disability, to illustrate the barriers that they can remove in order to welcome students into their studios. It is for the staff of disabled student services offices, to help them reach out to the design faculty and find ways to assist students; for the vocational rehabilitation counselors who may not know that design is an important field. It is for employers in design firms that may never have had an employee with a disability, to raise their expectations about the potential of designers with disabilities.

NEC Foundation of America provided the grant that made it possible to create this book. They are key collaborators in technology-related educational programs that  assure no one is left behind from participating as fully as they can in society.  The Access to Design Professions project would not have happened without the support of the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) Leadership Initiative in Universal Design. Their grants have funded the research, the Task Force that identified an action plan for the project, the International Network of Designers with Disabilities, and the new E-Mentoring program.

We thank the thirty-three people who participated in the initial research, and especially the twenty of that group who are included in this collection of profiles. They were generous with their time, answering myriad questions so that we could tell their stories accurately.

Thanks to the members of the Task Force, representing thirty organizations, who met for two days to define and prioritize future actions for the project. Thanks to the state departments of vocational rehabilitation across the country who provided financial support that enabled many of the people in the book to complete their design education. Thanks to the American Association for the Advancement of Science, whose early work in networking scientists with disabilities informed the Access to Design Professions project. Thanks to the American Chemical Society Committee on Chemists with Disabilities, whose Working Chemists with Disabilities was a model for our book. Thanks to the people who eagerly shared their memories of Ron Mace so that we could describe aspects of Ron's life that few people have known.

Thanks to the technology of the Internet, which made it possible to carry out the international research and to create the book. Building a World Fit for People was written by a team of three people working from their homes in Massachusetts, California, and Oregon. Our extended team included an editor in Maine, a graphic designer in Massachusetts, and the staff at the Adaptive Environments Center in Boston. Technology is making the workplace more productive for everyone, but especially for designers with disabilities. Several of the designers in the book detail ways in which technology, especially computer-aided design, is a key part of their work life.

Home offices often put a strain on family life, and the authors owe most grateful thanks to our loving and supportive family members.

Please visit the Access to Design Professions web page at www.AdaptiveEnvironments.org/accessdesign, where you can read the book online in accessible html, with links to key resources. We welcome you to become involved in the project, as a member of the network, as a mentor, or as a prot‚g‚. Now, we invite you to meet the designers with disabilities who have shared their lives with us.

Elaine Ostroff
Founding Director, Adaptive Environments Center
Project Director, Access to Design Professions


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