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Designing access for all
By Kate Hawthorne Jeracki
Toilets. Everybody needs one, eventually. Understanding public restrooms is a good way to understand the difference between accessible and equitable, a difference at the heart of Universal Design.
Simply stated, Universal Design strives to make all facilities useful for all people – regardless of age, culture, ability, or identity – by recognizing and anticipating challenges and removing as many barriers as possible.
Take public restrooms. Municipal building codes require a minimum number of facilities in public buildings, usually segregated for males and females. Since 1990, the Americans with Disabilities Act has required that a certain number be accessible to people who use wheelchairs.
In the 21st century, how we use public restrooms has shifted, as we continue to be active despite physical challenges. Both men and women take care of very young and very old relatives who need bathroom assistance. More people require privacy to maintain medical devices, such as colostomy bags, with dignity. And those whose gender identity doesn’t fit neatly into binary categories should feel comfortable using this most basic amenity.
Universal Design concepts take all these requirements into account to arrive at an equitable solution: Single-stall restrooms designated for use by all genders.
Economics and logistics dictate that large facilities such as concert halls, stadiums, and college campuses can’t offer single stalls as the only option. The Universal Design solution: Wayfinding.
“It’s one thing to provide all-gender restrooms on campus, but if no one knows where they are, they don’t do anyone much good,” explains Mary Ontiveros, vice president for diversity at Colorado State University, who also chairs the Committee on an Inclusive Physical and Virtual Campus. “As we looked at the issue, we saw it applied to many of our other resources, such as lactation and meditation rooms, and decided to be proactive about helping people find them.”
That’s why all these facilities now appear on the interactive campus map – maps.colostate.edu.
The committee’s mission is to help CSU identify potential barriers and achieve inclusivity through Universal Design. The Inclusive Physical and Virtual Campus Policy is set for review by the President’s Cabinet and approval by President Tony Frank in April.
Universal Design for Learning
The inclusive campus committee may be relatively new, but CSU has been working to implement Universal Design in Learning principles for more than a decade. In fact, the Accessibility of Electronic Information and Technology Policy has already been adopted, an outgrowth of The ACCESS Project, launched in 2005 by the Department of Occupational Therapy.
“UDL strives to eliminate barriers that impact teaching and learning, but at the time there was little understanding of how to achieve it,” explains Catherine Schelly, director of the Center for Community Partnerships, which serves student-veterans with brain injuries or PTSD and students on the autism spectrum, as well as members of the Fort Collins community with a wide range of disabilities. “We saw a great opportunity to do meaningful research on what is effective.”
Craig Spooner, ACCESS project coordinator, says the research team started by collaborating with The Institute for Learning and Teaching to work with instructors in large “gateway” courses. “We helped design good teaching practices that incorporate accessible materials, and the faculty shared with us what they and their students experienced. It helped start a cultural shift that works for everyone.”
The Assistive Technology Resource Center works to ensure equivalent access to technology and information for all CSU students and employees with disabilities, be they physical or cognitive challenges. Director Marla Roll serves on the inclusive campus committee and was co-investigator with Schelly on the ACCESS research. She says that while the array of assistive technology that can level the playing field continues to expand, one of her staff’s most important functions is assessment of existing barriers.
“About two-thirds of the students we serve have a ‘non-apparent’ disability; they see themselves as simply having a different way to learn,” she explains. “Much of what they need to learn successfully can happen proactively in the initial design of the course. If faculty anticipate their needs when providing content, with UDL principles in mind, the need for accommodation goes down.”
Embedding Universal Design principles from the start of any project is the key to meeting the needs of the most people within the resources available, and architects and designers have embraced the creative challenges that presents.
A lofty achievement that still includes the lowly toilet. CSU, through its Institute for the Built Environment and other design programs, is teaching the next generation of design thinkers.