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When the ADA Rules
Designing for the Disabled

by Linda Cooper Bowen

CA: Do you work directly with the client or with the architect?

Raynes: We work closely with architects, but we also need a client who understands and appreciates what we are doing. On the Tufts University School of Dental Medicine project in Boston, we were able to replace 8 X 8 signs in the corridors with large glass door panels, sandblasted with graphics, tactile lettering and Braille. It met the codes without diminishing light in the corridors. The codes are about providing information.

Left: The Raynes Rail, with Braille and audio information in three languages, directs passengers with reduced mobility to the designated reception area at the Charles de Gaulle Airport in Paris. Right: At the Musée des Beaux Arts, Douai, France, a three-dimensional drawing introduces a reclining sculpture on a sixteenth-century funeral stone, with engravings in old French and Braille. The drawing facilitates the tactile exploration of the stone. Design by Coco Raynes Associates.

CA: What improvements in ADA rules would facilitate the best outcome for the disabled user?

Raynes: The ADA guidelines are considered the most advanced in the world and have inspired the codes in Europe, South America and the Middle East. The 1990 rules were simpler; the latest version has not progressed from the minimum requirements. I would like to see design that addresses everyone’s needs while leaving room for intelligent interpretation. If the solution is beyond the regulations, let it be; I like the difficulty, and find the challenge exciting.

CA: How are the ADA-equivalent rules different in Canada?

Udo Schliemann and Stephen Candib, Gottschalk Ash International, Toronto: In Canada we are not bound by ADA regulations, although lavatories and stairways must have Braille and tactile signs. Increasingly audio signs are more useful. Often disabled communities write their own guidelines. In our research phase, we always consult with the “key stakeholders user groups, because each building is unique. It is imperative to include local members of the disabled community early in the process. For the Royal Ontario Museum we created tactile maps as well as a relief model of the museum that was much more helpful.

Candib: In cases of emergency, the basic ADA requirements must be followed. It is a liability issue and there has to be access throughout the building. The needs of the visually impaired have to be met while leaving designers some creative opening. Good designers look at the user, the consumer behavior, to arrive at a successful result. Our work is only as good as the client. Some only care about cost, creative designers do more.

Left: Alberta Mental Health Hospital in Ponoka wayfinding system is an example of a sign system that uses multiple visual clues to help patients with dementia or Alzheimer's orient themselves in the hospital. The idea: Like the many seeds of a dandelion, some of these “seeds” (clues) will work as visual elements in an organized way to help create confidence in the patients to leave this unit and come back. Design by Gottschalk Ash. Right: “This ‘new’ accessibility symbol was redesigned fifteen years ago by a student, Brendan Murphy. It didn’t garner much interest until recently. I was aware of this improved system, having been on the SEGD education committee that gave a grant to his project to study accessibility symbols,” says Paula Rees. “Our firm has used it successfully in our projects ever since. In our public work, it hasn’t been easy, but we persevered and it has received nothing but positive response for our clients (both private and public). I’ve encouraged other designers to do the same but with few results.”

CA: What improvements or changes do you suggest?

Schliemann: We live in a rule-driven society, trying to legislate politeness is difficult. As we work on two subway stations in Toronto the language and tone of the signage is important, “Please go 10 feet to the left” is polite and friendly, rather than the authoritative “Go 10 feet to the left.” In a mental health hospital in Alberta, we provided visual clues by adding color, pictograms and pictures that were better understood by Alzheimer's patients.

CA: How do ADA guidelines affect the outcome of your projects?

Paula Rees, Foreseer, Seattle, WA: In a typical project for a public environment, park or streetscape, signage is only ten percent of it. With ADA laws mandating ramping and other accessibility issues, the scope becomes broader. Ninety-seven percent of environmental designers don’t deal with these issues unless working with architects as a collaborator; the focus today is on use rather than the built environment. The ADA guidelines dictate the problem and how the designer must do it; we spend 90 percent of our time navigating the rules and 10 percent on the design.

CA: What future changes do you anticipate in design guidelines and direction?

Rees: ADA regulations don’t go far enough and are not always successful in the field. Today all disabilities are more pertinent, and Braille use is only one example. The government rules seem frozen and more about power and control. Few designers are willing to openly question the effectiveness of government-mandated solutions because this would seem to be politically incorrect or insensitive. But wasting money on solutions that don’t work only limits our funding resources to provide for those with the greatest need. The changes to the environmental graphic design profession will be profound and there is no way we can do it alone. This is our opportunity to be separate from the architects and make innovative changes. I predict that the ADA will shift dramatically.

: Clearly more research, testing and development need to be done. In addition to the rising population of the aged with disabilities including macular degeneration, limited mobility and cognitive issues, there are large numbers of physically and visually handicapped young men and women among surviving war casualties. Public spaces should be truly accessible and inclusive for the entire population-mothers pushing strollers, travelers with rolling suitcases and foreign visitors who do not understand the language. An improved and democratic environment will encourage greater investment in future wayfinding technology. CA Cooper Bowen
Linda Cooper Bowen is a marketing consultant interested in exploring current business issues which concern the creative profession. She has written for Communication Arts, Graphis, Print, HOW and I.D., as well as a number of foreign publications. Bowen has taught a graduate marketing course at Pratt Institute and is a frequent guest lecturer to design organizations in the U.S. and Canada. Her book, The Graphic Designer’s Guide to Creative Marketing is published by John Wiley & Sons, New York. For additional information, see Bowen live in downtown Jersey City, where she enjoys an excellent rear view of the Statue of Liberty.