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Creating Inclusive Spaces

Published Tuesday Jul 9, 2024

Author Dave Solomon

Todd Hanson of JSA, left, with Jake Haendel, founder of the Ahoi! app, showcase inclusive outdoor dining in Portsmouth, which includes a platform that makes the dining floor flush with the sidewalk. (Courtesy of JSA Design/ACCESS Navigators)

Todd Hanson, a principal with JSA Architects in Portsmouth, spent most of his career designing spaces to accommodate people with physical or emotional challenges.

He went to great lengths to understand the world they live in. Before designing a psychiatric hospital, he spent time locked in a padded seclusion room. When asked to design a substance abuse rehabilitation facility, he stayed overnight with an addict in withdrawal.

But shortly after his 50th birthday, about 12 years ago, he was diagnosed with Primary Lateral Sclerosis—a rare degenerative neuromuscular disease that is a variant of ALS and disrupts brain signals to the muscles.

Confined to a wheelchair and requiring a voice-assistive device to speak, he no longer needed to simulate the experience of living with disabilities to inform his work.

Since his diagnosis, Hanson has partnered with others in his firm to become one of the leading advocates for inclusive architectural design, and a founder of Access Navigators, a website that identifies access-friendly businesses throughout New England.

Access Navigators sends UNH students to visit businesses to see if they are accessible by answering questions like these:

  • Is the entrance accessible?
  • How accommodating is the interior layout?
  • Is there an accessible restroom?
  • Is there parking nearby?

Those questions establish basic compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act, but are only the beginning of a truly inclusive environment, according to Hanson, who made the case for what he calls “universal design” in a 2022 Ted Talk at the Portsmouth Music Hall.

“Meeting the requirements set out by the ADA and the building codes are just the minimum that should be expected, it’s formulaic and uncreative,” Hanson told the audience. “I’m a huge advocate of universal design. Simply put, universal design means designing for all abilities equally. It’s an attitude of respect that blends sensitivity, creativity, and compassion.”

Beyond the ADA
When JSA was hired to renovate the housing at Crotched Mountain Rehabilitation Center for medically dependent kids and adults in Greenfield, they were asked to connect the basement of the kid’s dorm to the basement of their adjacent school.

“But after spending time with those kids, their families and the caregivers, the thought of subjecting them to a windowless basement tunnel that passed by boiler rooms would be adding another soul-sucking chore to their days,” says Hanson.

Instead, the firm proposed a 500-foot-long glass connector that Hanson says would let them take in the Crotched Mountain vistas, appreciate the changing weather, and actually enjoy the twice daily commute.

“A windowless basement hallway would have been accessible design, it would get the kids from point A to point B. But would the kids and caregivers gather there to search for rainbows, enjoy the first snowfall and watch lightning storms?” Hanson asked. “The answer is obvious. And the insight is that thoughtful, inclusive design can uplift disabled individuals, and their caretakers, and all of us for that matter, in life-affirming ways.”

Architects learn the basics of inclusive design as a part of their training, according to Nick King, a recently licensed architect and co-founder of Making Design studio in Nashua with his wife, Daniela. Those truly committed to inclusivity take their work well beyond the ADA requirements, King says.

“Broadly speaking, inclusive design is good design,” he says. “When the buildings are more accessible it results in a better project nine times out of 10, and you see that broadly throughout architecture.”

Even able-bodied people who could take the stairs like to walk through a space on a ramp at a comfortable slope, says King. “Automatic doors are another great example,” he adds. “Having them is convenient; everyone uses them.”

Avoiding Hostile Architecture
King points to the flip side of inclusive architecture, known as hostile architecture. Part of supporting inclusivity includes fighting exclusivity, he says.

Hostile architecture is routinely used to prevent loitering and to ward off the homeless. Hostile design elements include things like armrests in the middle of benches or small spikes on the ground under awnings to prevent people from sleeping there; railings; fences under stairs; sloped seating; and closed-circuit TV cameras.

“Imagine instead of putting spikes under your awning you create a bigger awning, one that can cover more people, one that can shelter more people from the rain,” says King. “It isn’t just for homeless people, it’s for your customers, people walking down the street. Now you’re opening yourself up to more clients, more tenants, more foot traffic because you are opening your doors to more people by maintaining accessibility.”

As Hanson points out, 26% of us are living with disabilities. That’s a large part of the market and it’s only growing with the aging population.

Businesses can comply with the letter of the ADA while violating its spirit, according to Anne Weidman, who co-founded Access Navigators and serves as director of business development and community engagement at JSA.

“Ramping is a good example,” she says. “Sometimes it is so ugly that it is just horrendous, and yet it can be beautiful, with curves and navigation that winds through stairs; it doesn’t have to be ugly aluminum planks.”

LGBTQ student center for a Massachusetts university project by Chapman Construction (Photo by William Horne)

Don’t Marginalize
It’s important to remember that accessibility starts at the front door, not through the loading dock. “Sometimes the most accessible entry is the one by the back door,” says Weidman. “Go around the back and look for the dumpsters; that’s where the accessible door [usually] is.”

Inclusivity in public spaces is not restricted to people with mobility issues. Tony Brown, project executive with Chapman Construction, with locations in Newton, Mass., and Manchester, describes the work that went into an LGBTQ student center for a Massachusetts university. The design included lots of glass to make sure “everyone felt the space was on display and not hidden in any way or off to the side. That was built into the design,” says Brown.

Inclusive design extends to bathrooms and goes beyond making them accessible for people with disabilities. Some businesses and schools include gender inclusive bathrooms, which can be designed with single occupancy stalls with floor to ceiling walls and doors, a locking mechanism that would indicate if the stall was in use, and multi-user hand washing stations that can located in common areas for everyone to use, according to Acorn Engineering Company in California.

Such designs are inclusive of transgender people as well as parents and caregivers assisting children or people with disabilities of the opposite sex and can reduce wait lines for everyone, according to an Acorn blog.

Finding Accommodations
When looking for advice on accessibility, businesses can turn to the New England ADA Center. “The ADA is not in place to put small business owners out of business,” says Weidman. “They have workarounds to help small businesses accommodate people with disabilities. They aren’t expecting a small business owner to spend $200,000 on improvements,” Weidman says.

For example, she says, if a convenience store has two steps at the entry and no way to get around that, a doorbell could be installed with an intercom. Someone in a wheelchair could ring the bell, give their order and have it handed to them at
the door.

Sometimes the changes don’t require any money or new construction, just an attitude or sense of awareness by the business owner that leans toward accessibility.

When you open a door while sitting in a wheelchair, you need room to pull away from the door, a clearance of about 18 inches, known as the “pull side clearance.”

If a restaurant puts its sandwich board in that space announcing specials of the day, that entrance is now blocked to a wheelchair user. Sure, someone can open the door for them, but that’s not the point. Rather its about removing obstacles for people.

“Let it be known that we are independent adult humans, whether we are using a wheelchair or not,” says Weidman. “So let’s make it so all independent adults can use that clearance and open the door on their own.”

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