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