Architecture & Design, Construction, and Nonprofits

Disability Advocates promotes universal accessibility

Kent County nonprofit’s movement focuses on making buildings more navigable for everyone.

April 12, 2019
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Universal Design
The Mary Free Bed YMCA features a central ramp that eliminates the need for stairs. Courtesy Progressive AE

Disability Advocates of Kent County is promoting local change in conjunction with a worldwide movement for universal accessibility.

Focusing on universal design — the design and composition of buildings and environments for accessibility by all — the movement focuses on how architects can work with building owners to create a more inclusive county.

“The ADA is the floor, not the ceiling,” said Dave Bulkowski, executive director of Disability Advocates. “As some people like to say, the ADA is the worst you can do, legally. That bare minimum is not the target anymore.”

Bulkowski said virtually everyone knows someone with a disability, and most everyone likely will have a temporary or permanent disability at some point in their lives, so the benefit is for everyone.

Over the past several years, the architecture firm Progressive AE has increased focus on universal design, headed by Executive Vice President Mike Perry, working on projects throughout the world.

Perry has spoken nationally on the subject, including in Austria and for the United Nations, and numerous universities. He has three speaking engagements on the subject in the next month. In July, he’s speaking at the Disability:IN conference in Chicago.

Perry defines universal design as just that — design with everyone in mind — not just those in wheelchairs but also the elderly, those with visual and hearing impairments, even wandering toddlers and parents with strollers. He said it takes an understanding of how people with varying abilities approach and move through a building.

“It's a change in mindset by looking through a series of different lenses,” Perry said.

He said the goal of this design is to enable and empower a diverse population by improving human performance, health and wellness, safety and social participation.

There are a lot of aspects to a building that could be taken for granted by people without physical impediments, such as whether there’s a ramp to the front door, power doors or accessible bathrooms, and whether restaurants have enough low tables rather than only booths and high tops.

These all may seem insignificant to some but can greatly affect the experience of others, Bulkowski said, which could lead to companies not attracting the level of business they could.

“What universal design does is it really reduces those physical and social barriers, providing a design that's really easy to understand across those diverse backgrounds and abilities,” Perry said.

Perry mentioned a talk he heard recently that noted kids in wheelchairs are more likely to be bullied. He said designers and companies can help alleviate some of that social pressure by ensuring they can navigate a building and can pull up to any lunch table with friends.

“These kids just want to be kids,” he said. “So how do we help that happen in the design world? We make sure they're included.”

While architects can work to promote and suggest more universal design, what actually happens ultimately is up to the building owners.

While adding certain accessibility features may increase costs initially, Perry and Bulkowski agreed the long-term financial and cultural effects are beneficial.

Progressive AE designed the Mary Free Bed YMCA that opened in 2015 at 5500 Burton St. SE in Grand Rapids. Designed specifically for people with disabilities, the two-level building has a central ramp, no stairs. Since most accidents in buildings happen on stairs, having a ramp in the design is safer for all, a prime example of how universal design can benefit everyone, Perry said.

“Not only has the ramp formed this iconic statement about promoting equality … but it also ensures safety of the users,” he said.

The building received the world’s first Global Universal Design Certification from the Global Universal Design Commission.

Perry, who recently ended a term as the Y’s board chair, said the Y’s membership increased from 3,300 to 18,000 members in three years. There’s now a whole segment of the community coming to a Y, exercising and creating a social network.

Perry argues this type of benefit could happen for for-profit companies, as well.

The discussion of diverse abilities in the workforce was not happening 20 years ago, but now, Perry said he believes companies that show they value and invest in inclusiveness are more competitive when attracting workers.

Bulkowski added that businesses more accommodating to people with disabilities typically are more accommodating to everyone, attracting more customers and increasing employee morale.

Perry said Progressive AE has a universal design checklist that can be especially helpful for companies renovating older buildings. It offers a framework of strategies they can use to determine the most viable individual solutions.

Companies can even include simple yet effective safety measures, such as subtle visual and tactile cues to let people know they are approaching stairs or level changes.

Just as there has been a push in the past years for sustainable buildings, Bulkowski said the goal is for a similar push for universal design.

Disability Advocates has spent the past 18 months reaching out to industry professionals for a universal design workshop this week, meant to raise awareness and promote the conversation.

From there, the plan is to leverage the conversation with that group into action, determining how to get to the final goal.

“We know where we want to go, which is an accessible and welcoming community for all,” Bulkowski said.

Bulkowski said Disability Advocates will host a number of training sessions and workshops in the coming months to continue elevating the conversation, not just about design but also about general disability awareness and the issue from a human resources perspective.

Disability Advocates also has been working with Experience Grand Rapids to expand its accessibility guide, which lists accessibility information for businesses and other destinations.

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