Designing With Disability

It can be said that catastrophic medical illness is good for one thing, helping people come to terms with and redefine the world around them. Some of our most valuable insight has come from architects with disabilities trying to improve the world for everyone. These architects have a unique insight into specific universal issues that many people are blind to now but will most likely have to cope with in some degree in the future.

A few of the most interesting designers with disabilities include Antoni Gaudi, Michael Graves, and Tom Luckey. These unfortunately are the only ones I have really heard of, most likely because there is no organization similar to those for other struggling groups within the architecture field such as woman and minorities. It may be due to the fact that for these individuals, struggling with everyday life and survival is so overwhelming and brutal that it is hard to do much more in addition to work. The closest organization I have been able to find is the Institute for Human Centered Design.

Illness and struggle can allow individuals to achieve great things. In the case of Gaudi, his rheumatic illness in childhood drew him more close to the study of nature. Hikes through nature relieved the pain he felt and influenced his design strategy throughout his life. Similarly, in adulthood, he was able to conceive the passion facade for Sagrada Familia while suffering from tuberculosis. Yet introversion, devotion, and reflection within our field are currently frowned upon, while showmanship and empty money-making ideas are championed.

Since becoming paralyzed from meningitis several years ago, Michael Graves has gained a new focus on his design, from his experience within hospitals and in everyday life. Currently, and different from his past designs, he feels that everything must be tested for its functional worth, (something that is not often done in architecture unfortunately). This can be compared to something I have studied, i.e., the recent enhancements in restroom design. How preposterous it seems that in the past, men have been the only ones to design restrooms for women; men who have no idea of what it is like to urinate as a woman, menstruate, or breastfeed.

The recent film on architect Tom Luckey shows the immense struggle that talented disabled architects must face in communicating their visions to the world. He had to restructure his entire reality, family and relationships to continue building the things that he loved.

It seems that most often, people with disabilities are forced into the fringe within the architecture field, as they do not fit the typical mold or vision of what an architect is. As our profession dies out, I think people with unique insight into the changing nature of reality and struggle should be called upon for their insight. I always find it strange not seeing many disabled people around the city, most likely due to the fact that (despite the advancements with ADA) our world is not designed for them and does not welcome them. And ultimately, this lack of diversity and innovation hurts everyone.

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About Meghan Dufresne

Meghan R. Dufresne, LEED AP is an architectural designer and writer based in Boston. Interests include sustainability, gardens, art, sound, touch, experience, and merging buildings with the surrounding landscape.
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