I was in grad school at the University of Illinois for Landscape Architecture in the early 80’s. It would still be a few years before the Americans with Disabilities Act would pass, but some of my design classes were addressing the issue of accessibility. Another Landscape Architecture grad student, Tom, was in one of these classes and he got very agitated when one day, the discussion focused on the spatial requirements necessary for a bathroom to be made accessible for the standard wheelchair. He didn’t think that business owners should have to give up valuable square footage to accommodate people in wheelchairs.
As a 22 year old, I honestly had never focused on the fact that there are physical barriers everywhere that can severely limit the way a handicapped person engages with life. I had the fortune to live with a certain level of arrogance as an able-bodied person, ignoring the fact that a 6” curb or a set of steps that I could casually navigate might effectively be a 6’ wall covered with barbed wire to someone in a wheelchair. I began to appreciate that, as a designer, I had a responsibility to consider how an entire spectrum of people might use a space.
As Tom expressed his upset over regulations that might be forced on private property owners, I decided, “Yup….I am totally joining this discussion.” I came in swinging with my point that once a person opens their business to the public, their ‘private’ space becomes public and must be in compliance with local and national regulations. None of us lives in the wild, wild west anymore where we get to make up rules that conveniently benefit our own, limited self-interests.
Maybe Tom wasn’t used to being challenged…I don’t know, but he steadily raised his voice until he was yelling at me because I wouldn’t yield at all towards his opinions. The discussion came to an abrupt end when Tom yelled that anyone in a wheelchair should be required to have a colostomy thereby eliminating the need for wheelchair accessible bathrooms. The whole class, even those who were benignly ignoring the discussion, looked at him with expressions that said, “Whoa, dude….really?!” Yes, he really meant it, but he realized that he had crossed a line that most of the class found rather appalling and chose to be quiet.
My 22 year old self had no idea how much the Americans with Disabilities Act would eventually come to mean to future me. As a mother of twin sons, both blind and one who is also in a wheelchair with profound disabilities, a challenging life is made just a bit less challenging because of those pesky ramps, curb cuts and elevators that are sometimes present only because they were legally required to be present.
If it takes legislation to make us benevolent towards one another, that’s fine with me.
Thank you ADA!