Kim-Marie Degenkolb | Nov 6, 2020

Image via The Globe And Mail

Many parts of our beautiful city are unfortunately not designed for people with disabilities. Those individuals encounter many roadblocks along the way – from finding a job, a community, and last but not least accessible housing. It is important for the construction industry to increase awareness and go beyond regulations when it comes to design for disabilities. Architects may be able to borrow some tools from the digital design industry, which has made many advances on this front.

Especially when designing rental housing, it is important to design with a more inclusive mindset and envision a diverse pool of potential residents. We have to consider present, as well as future residents’ needs to ensure the building can adapt throughout its life. Buildings aren’t a single-use object, and their ability to adapt to a variety of residential needs is limited only by our foresight.

Image Via the Ottawa Business Journal

There are two major reasons why accessible housing is such a rare find, especially in large cities like Toronto. For one, there is often no incentive for developers or clients to aim for accessible design. With our current housing crisis, the mindset has been “more is better.” The other problem lies with the attitudes of designers themselves.

Many architects struggle to really understand how to design accessible spaces outside of the code requirements, empathizing with the needs of the initial resident. We often fail to question restrictions and treat accessibility as an afterthought. Unfortunately, more often than not, designing to code will result in a poor experience for disabled individuals. Understanding different disabilities and their unique needs is key here.

One tool often used in the digital design world are personas. They are imaginary individuals with personable attributes, needs, a face, and a name, creating a reference point for the designer. A lot of research goes into creating a persona, and it is often based on surveying the community. Personas help designers identify who they are designing for, and serve as a continuous reminder of their needs during the design process. This could be especially useful for architects since we can’t always predict who will live in the spaces we create in the future.

Example of a persona

The personas should be used early on in the design process to ensure that the resident’s needs are priority number one. By creating multiple personas, we can include a variety of different individuals representing multiple slices of the population. It allows us to go beyond our assumptions through research and get answers from the community. Throughout the persona iteration process, the designer will also develop an empathy for different individuals and will be able to get a better sense of what’s appropriate and important. Foundational persona work can often be leveraged across many projects, making for a worthwhile investment.

Personas are just one way a designer can increase their awareness and empathy towards different abled bodies. The important thing is that architects and other designers keep the conversation going and share experiences.

Interested in learning more? Check out these articles on the subject!

Podcast with Karen Braitmayer (Seattle):

Accessible ramp at Ryerson review:

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