How Good Design Can Alleviate Disability

Inclusive Design and Occupational Therapy

Inclusive design and occupational therapy. GettyImages

Ingrid M. Kanics is an occupational therapist (OT) who provides inclusive design consultation on community spaces. She works to ensure that parks, museums, senior centers, etc. can be enjoyed by persons of all abilities.

Kanics, a part-time wheelchair user herself, understands her role as actually alleviating disability.

“I go back to the World Health’s Organization definition of disability,” said Kanics, “which states that disability is an interaction between a person and the environment.

When you have a mismatch, you create a disabling condition. So it is not about a person who has a medical condition, it is about how their condition is embraced by the environment.”

Kanics combines her knowledge of inclusive design with her OT skills of assessing the needs of individuals and communities to make recommendations to community groups and businesses. Kanics explains, “If I am looking at a senior facility, then I am going to be looking at a larger proportion of people using wheeled mobility supports. How am I going to ensure that the environment does not disable them?”

What Is Inclusive Design?

Inclusive design spans disciplines and can serve as an umbrella for different design movements.

Accessible design is the minimum standard of inclusivity. Accessible design indicates that the space adheres to guidelines set forth by the American with Disabilities Act (ADA). When passed in 1990, this legislation proved revolutionary for people with disabilities; however, it was soon discovered that adherence to ADA guidelines did not ensure the quality of experience sought from the space.

For example, ADA mandates that parks must have access to elevated play components typically provided through ramps. But where does that ramp lead? Does it offer an opportunity for quality play experience? Or even more fundamental, is the ramp accessible to a wheelchair user? Adherence to the ADA checklist may not be enough.

Universal Design is a broader movement started in the 1950s­-- within the world of architecture, which strives to design products and spaces to be usable to the greatest extent possible by persons of all ages, abilities, and status. An example of universal design is having different heights of sinks in a public bathroom, making the space accessible to both a wheelchair user and child. Universal Design is often broken down in these seven principles.

Kanics would argue that inclusive design is even more comprehensive than Universal Design. Universal Design and accessible design may be tools to help you arrive at an inclusive design, but ultimately inclusive design comes back to making an enabling match between the environment and the user. Inclusive design goes beyond thinking about the physical space to consider the sensory, social, and physical needs of the people who will be using it. This cannot be captured solely be checklists or principles.

Kanics argues, “I have people who will say, ‘Can you just give us a checklist?’ And I say, ‘I can’t .

Your community’s needs are going to be different than a community on the other side of town because your ethnography data is different. Who lives there is different. You may have a higher level of autism, so I may look at sensory pieces and not worry about ramping to the same degree (providing ADA compliance in this area). But if you’re next to a Paralympic training facility I’m going to make sure that I have wheelchair mobility access to everything I can get. So that I can create a space that is unique to your community and who will be there on a regular basis.’”

How are Occupational Therapists Involved in Inclusive Design?

Occupational therapists are taught the basics of inclusive and accessible design in OT school. Some will then go on to specialize in this line of work. Some OTs, like Kanics, will be employed by grants or consultation related to work on public spaces. Some will focus on commercial buildings. Others will look at how the design of your home may support aging in place.

If you are undertaking new construction or a remodeling project consider reaching out to an OT for consultation on how your space can be enabling for the persons who will be using it.

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