Interior Design

An Honest Chat About Accessible Design

Designer Maegan Blau on creating spaces for all abilities. Plus, a peek at her own adaptive home.

September 11, 2020
Photo by Maegan Blau

This summer marks the 30th anniversary of the signing of the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA), a landmark piece of civil rights legislation that prohibits discrimination based on mental or physical ability. The act encompasses guidelines for everything from inclusive hiring practices to the requirement that public spaces be accessible to those of all abilities. Ramps, handrails, as well as standard sidewalk/door widths, for example, all have their origins in the ADA.

This tentpole anniversary has sparked a renewed interest in accessibility as it relates to interior design, with various publications weighing in on the industry’s shortcomings and successes. Are we doing enough? How can we do better? These are big questions that call for even bigger answers, but the fact that they are even being asked speaks volumes about where the field is headed.

When discussing inclusivity in design, it is important to understand the differences between two major schools of thought: accessible and universal. Accessible design is focused on addressing the needs of someone who is differently abled, either mentally or physically. Universal design is a broader idea that promotes spaces that are usable by all in the same way, no matter their ability. A wheelchair ramp, for example, is accessible because it meets a specific need of those who are differently abled. A door that opens automatically when you approach it, on the other hand, is universal by design, because those of all abilities benefit the same way from the feature.

To get a better understanding of both, as well as insight into designing for all, we sat down with Maegan Blau, founder and lead designer of Blue Copper Design. After a spinal cord injury in her teens required her to use a wheelchair, Blau became passionate about designing adaptable spaces. From accessible houses to universal gyms, she cleverly mixes the medical grade with the trendy to create interiors that are equal parts eye-catching and functional.

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Top Comment:
“Separately, I am intrigued by the universal design approach, especially as solutions for people with disabilities often create better solutions for all people. Are you aware of Disability:IN's focus on inclusion, not just diversity? While diversity is important, it is only a start. Inclusion levels and equalizes the playing field. Well done! Ed @ theblindguide.com”
— henklere
Comment

As you will glean from our conversation, Blau’s outlook on the future of accessibility is optimistic. She is excited by the interest in this oft-ignored arm of design and is seeing a larger cultural shift in the acceptance of, and consideration for, those with differing abilities. Scroll down to read the interview and to take a look at some of the accessible adaptations she made to her own home in Queen Creek, Ariz.

Blau removed all of the upper cabinetry in her home and maximized storage at seat height so she can reach everything. Drawers tend to work better than doors for those who use a wheelchair, as the swinging of cabinet doors can be hard to navigate around. Photo by MAEGAN BLAU

Garrett Fleming: Have you faced any specific challenges as a designer who builds spaces for those who are differently abled?
Maegan Blau: The biggest challenge I have faced is opening my contractors’ and vendors’ minds to a new definition of customized accessibility. Initially people think of accessibility as only following ADA standards, which is a great start, but there is so much more that can be achieved.

GF: There are so many different levels of ability. Not even Universal design can cater to every need, but where could it start?
MB: I have been hearing discussions about home builders creating floor plans that include accessible features like supports for grab bars, 100 percent wheelchair accessibility on the first level, roll-in showers, widened doorways, and much more. These are great starts, and they are happening right now.

GF: I think many people unfairly assume making a space accessible means you have to sacrifice your personal style.
MB: Accessibility and style are not exclusive ideas—they absolutely go together. As for specific furniture, I can find accessible pieces everywhere, because accessible means something different for everyone in a residential setting.

A lower-profile bedside table helps Blau reach items more easily. Photo by MAEGAN BLAU

GF: Are there other problematic assumptions you see people making about accessible design?
MB: The most problematic assumption people can make is that accessible design is hard to achieve. It requires a specific perspective but requires no extra work and is just as expensive as any other design plan.

GF: I’m surprised to hear making a home accessible does not cost more overall. I think many people assume otherwise.
MB: I do not see a huge cost difference in making a home more accessible. Materials and labor can all be the same cost if the plan is made with accessibility in mind. Accessible design is not about going to the medical supply store or using things only rated for ADA guidelines. It is about taking those guidelines, listening to the person who will be living in the home, and creating a design plan for them as you would any other person.

Ditching the cabinetry under the bathroom sink allows Blau to wheel up under it. She and her husband built cubbies in the drywall to make up for the storage they lost by removing it. Photo by MAEGAN BLAU

GF: What are your thoughts on universal design? It seems like a win-win for all involved.
MB: Universal design is the best option when working with commercial design. It is generalized and specific at the same time and for that reason may not be the best approach for residential design plans. For homes, we always want to be as specific as possible to the person using the home, unless our client specifies otherwise.

GF: In your opinion, what current interior design trend is the most accessible?
MB: The biggest design trends that are accessible are curbless showers and the new take on multilevel kitchen countertops. Multilevel countertops have been viewed as dated, but there are so many new ways to incorporate table height in a countertop that are chic and functional.

Blau’s bathroom features what she calls one of the most accessible design trends as of late: a zero-entry shower. The concrete floor provides traction and holds up nicely against a wheelchair’s rolling, making it a stylish and highly functional addition to any accessible home. Photo by MAEGAN BLAU
Installing a microwave at counter height or lower makes it accessible to everyone. Plus, it keeps a not-so-attractive appliance out of sight. Photo by MAEGAN BLAU

Have you done anything to make your own home accessible? Tell us about it in the comments below!

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See what other Food52 readers are saying.

  • Dani
    Dani
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  • Robin Mack-Ward
    Robin Mack-Ward
  • Gary Schiro
    Gary Schiro
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Comment
Garrett Fleming

Written by: Garrett Fleming

Interiors Editor & Art Director

11 Comments

Dani September 14, 2020
Yes. I also have an SCI and am a wheelchair user. I was surprised she didn’t have roll-under features in her kitchen, though I love the design and the drawers are key.

I needed an accessible cool space in my kitchen. Rather than hitting the whole kitchen, I built an accessible island that I can roll under and is a lowered height. It has a cooktop, a bar sink with a swivel faucet that reaches over the burners as well so I don’t have to lift heavy pots. And it has a prep area. Rolling under is so much less tiring than cooking sideways and reaching upwards.
The oven we own is a double oven. I use the slim top one which can open directly onto my lap.
The only think I find difficult is the accessing fridges. Someday I’d like to have an independent fridge drawer installed under a counter so I can reach the essentials easily.

Appreciated this article! Universal design makes the future accessible!
 
Dani September 14, 2020
I mean accessible cooking space not “cool space” even though it’s cool too ;)
 
Dani September 14, 2020
Oh jeez I also meant to say gutting the whole kitchen not hitting.
 
henklere September 13, 2020
Great article, Garrett and Arati!

I agree with the emphasis on accessibility and even the distinction between solutions for a public space vs. peronal living space. Separately, I am intrigued by the universal design approach, especially as solutions for people with disabilities often create better solutions for all people.

Are you aware of Disability:IN's focus on inclusion, not just diversity? While diversity is important, it is only a start. Inclusion levels and equalizes the playing field.

Well done! Ed @ theblindguide.com
 
Author Comment
Garrett F. September 14, 2020
Hi There,

I am so glad you liked the article. I just checked out Disability: IN's website. Very inspiring stuff! Thanks for the recommendation.

–Garrett
 
Robin M. September 12, 2020
Great to see accessibility coverage. But why is it assumed that the reader doesn't have accessibility needs themselves?
"Have you done anything to make your own home accessible for a family member? Tell us about it in the comments below!"
 
Arati M. September 12, 2020
You’re quite right, Robin. We’ve changed that! Thank you for your sensitivity.
 
Robin M. September 12, 2020
Awesome, thanks !
 
Gary S. September 11, 2020
Thank you for this story. So many people have never heard of universal design and have so many misconceptions about costs and adaptations. It is astonishing to me to see newly constructed public spaces that are still so inaccessible. We can and we should be doing better.
 
Arati M. September 11, 2020
I 100% agree with you, Gary. We need much better integration (that doesn't feel like a compromise or an after-thought!).
 
Author Comment
Garrett F. September 14, 2020
Hi Gary,

I absolutely agree.

–Garrett