Opening Doors Means Opening our Eyes

access for all means designing for a few

"When we design for disability first, you often stumble upon solutions that are better than those when we design for the norm."
— Elise Roy

Designing to include people of all abilities is not the correction of an "instance" or "occurrence," it’s an act of empathy aimed at respectfully and generously meeting the multitude of ways that humans move, navigate, live and interact. It’s also an opportunity to solve for more than accessibility.

In his video essay, How Life Looks Through My ‘Whale Eyes,’ which was recently published in the New York Times, James Robinson gives viewers a poignant glimpse into what it’s like to navigate the world as part of the “sea of difference,” on which the “USS Normal” sails. Robinson, who graduated from Duke in 2020, deals with three different eye conditions that cause an array of challenges with how he sees — and how he is seen.

“We put so much time and effort into making sure that people who are perceived as different understand what it would be like if they were normal,” he says. “But we rarely ever do the opposite. Pushing those who perceive themselves as normal to understand what it would be like if they were different.”

The architect’s job is to “do the opposite;” to push ourselves, as Robinson describes, into understanding what it would be like to swim in the ‘sea of difference,” and then design places that meet those differences with intelligence and grace. This inclusive approach is known as universal design or designing for accessibility — or just plain old good design. Regardless of what we call it, it’s all about empathy. We have to be able to imagine how all kinds of different people with diverse abilities can access, use and enjoy the same place without compromise.

Universal Design

Every project that Jones undertakes embraces universal design concepts. Quite often, we are working on campuses constructed well before laws that govern universal access were enacted, which means we don’t have the luxury of starting from scratch.

Solutions within buildings are solved as part of renovations to these structures. Many of the buildings have seen multiple overhauls since their original construction — to address deferred maintenance, the end of the natural life of particular building systems, or finish upgrades. As these incremental updates have been implemented, they are accompanied by improvements to accessibility, in compliance with the law — bathroom updates, door operation, ramps and sloped walks at building entries, etc.

However, when working on a campus, there is an ill-defined limit outside the building where the accessibility scope stops. It is not a standalone building in a parking lot where you can draw a clean line. These campuses are networks of circulation and we are often tasked with drawing these lines in ways that improve accessibility, while limiting scope to contain project cost.

The Spaces Between

The all-important spaces between buildings in particular are plagued by impediments — whether the small moments of a single step or two, or the sweeping challenges of a sloped walk that exceeds code limits and runs for hundreds of feet. At the same time, sitework and landscape offer some of the best opportunities to achieve universal access and can be far less expensive than renovation or building anew. Creatively manipulating a site can shape a system of access that everyone uses in the same way — raising the grade so that no stairs are required, for example.

That’s why it has been gratifying to work on campus projects whose primary motivation was improvement to accessibility in the landscape and circulation network that ties each campus together — offering the opportunity to solve for access in a way that also improved campus resilience overall. While every project is different in terms of student body, culture, landscape, climate, original design intent, character and so on, each underwent a systemic approach that looks at how the whole campus can benefit from improved access strategies. It starts by identifying areas of exclusion and ends with inclusive design that brings social and environmental benefits to all users, as well as economic benefits to the schools.

Inclusive Design

Map accessibility barriers and pedestrian hazards

Working with the Statewide Accessibility Initiative (SAI) of the Division of Capital Asset Management and Maintenance (DCAMM) led to a detailed mapping of auditory, physical, and visual barriers at both Cape Cod Community College and Massasoit Community College. This ranged from non-compliance and safety concerns, to completely inaccessible buildings and landscapes. This process requires bouncing back and forth between the micro (a laser level laid upon the walking surface) to the macro (how do these systems of circulation stitch the campus together).

It’s worth noting that the SAI does not currently include criteria for cognitive, learning, and neurological disabilities, although there is a growing movement — and an architectural specialty to go with it — to address, for example, sensory processing disorders, through the built environment.

Identify projects with the greatest impact to users

Limited resources require prioritization. First and foremost, all buildings must be accessible. Secondarily, to provide equal experiences for all visitors to campus (student, faculty, community, etc.), and to beautify. At Massasoit Community College (MCC), the Technology Building had no accessible entrance. Modifying the connection to a nearby building solved this deficiency, while enhancing a program of native plantings on campus.

Reinforce the unique nature of each campus' culture, population, topography, and landscape character

Once the essential elements that physically and culturally define the campus are identified, the job is to determine how best to leverage or enhance them through accessibility measures. For example, Norwich University, with its military heritage, has a traditional culture that emphasizes formality and ceremony; it occupies an expansive rural site marked by rectilinear terraces and plateaus amid extreme grade changes. Here, big and dramatic moves make sense both physically and culturally.

MCC too has a rigorous geometric building and site organization, but its site is relatively compact and flat, a brutalist “concrete carpet” connected by stairs over subtle grade changes. Like its southeastern Massachusetts compatriot, Cape Cod Community College (CCCC), which is tucked gracefully into its native Cape landscape with meandering slopes and subtle grade changes, it merits an approach more akin to watchmaking: painstaking and intricate, with a goal to effect substantial change with subtle moves.

Logically integrate design solutions with infrastructure, maintenance, and operations regimens

This may seem obvious; ask the question anyway: How can what we’re doing affect infrastructure, maintenance and operations? When working with Norwich on the central campus revitalization project, improving the accessibility of the main circulation spine was combined with replacement of the primary steam line, snow storage areas, and new landscape design reinforcing the connection between the Upper Parade Ground and the Chapel.

Combine a full range of social and environmental sustainability goals

What is the social mandate of the institution? Are there venues for public events? Campuses often have a community responsibility that reaches beyond their immediate user group, which changes how we think about access. A performance hall for example, may need to be accessible to community members on a February evening coming from a remote parking lot, as well as the students walking across the quad from their residence hall.

"I don’t have a problem with the way that I see,” he says. “My only problem is with the way that I’m seen.”
— James Robinson

Seize Opportunities

Managing stormwater offers opportunities to improve accessibility and environmental impacts. When discussing the CCCC campus identity with stakeholders, they identified more with the wooded, natural landscape rather than the brick and concrete of much of the campus circulation. This informed the design approach, which reinforces the system of fluid paths while introducing a stormwater collection and management system featuring native plantings, swales, and drainage structures that straddle and duck under the path system. Bridges cross over these swales to provide accessible entries to buildings.

By opening up the main campus entry visually as well as improving access, the entire campus feels more welcoming, providing a completely different first impression to potential students that reinforces the school’s recruitment strategy.

Think about when to disappear, and when to show up big.

Sometimes, there is an opportunity for a grand gesture to demonstrate a connection that solves for universal access. At Norwich’s Mack Hall, the bridge connecting the third floor of the building to the Upper Parade Ground spans over the Memorial Walkway and is a big architectural gesture that suits the scale and culture the campus. Far more often, it is the micro adjustments of grades, walkways, building entries, edge conditions, and material treatments like those of CCCC and MCC that feel as if they have always been there (or should have been).

The Long View

Regardless, providing improved access to buildings also creates more equitable access to programs and resources provided by these institutions. This aids in student recruitment and retention, as well as community outreach, providing long-term stability for the college. When this access also supports a self-maintaining ecosystem of planting, stormwater management, and wildlife, it not only offers aesthetic and wellness benefits, but allows the campus to spend facility resources elsewhere.

Designing for access is so much more than ramps and handrails. It’s an empathetic and holistic way of thinking that aims to integrate the broadest possible set of opportunities of a given project in ways that bring people together rather than setting them apart. Solutions appear simple, or better yet, don’t appear at all to the everyday user. Which means they are underpinned by a complex process marked by thoughtful and thorough analysis of conditions, conducted by experienced field teams with comprehensive knowledge of the technical requirements of universal design, and a client committed to an inclusive outcome.

“I just want to be able to connect with people,” Robinson says. “It’s because I really live in your world that I need your help overcoming the distance between us.”

Architects, along with our colleagues in the landscape and engineering professions, have the opportunity with the built environment to help shrink the distances between people rather than magnify them. We would be foolish not to make the most of it.



Overcoming Accessibility Challenges with Inclusive Landscapes,” Sarah Tarbet with Christopher Becker (Statewide Accessibility Initiative, DCAMM), Carlo Urmy (Designer, Crowley Cottrell), and Jennifer Brooke (Principal, Lemon Brooke, LLC) presentedin December 2020 at the ArchitectureBoston Expo (ABX) Virtual Tradeshow.