How a San Francisco Architect Reframes Design for the Blind
April 21, 2015 3:57 AM   Subscribe

Even though Lorenz, who, like Downey, is blind, can't see the space before her, she knows exactly what to expect. On her desk at the ILRC's current office on Mission Street, she keeps a tactile floor plan that Downey printed for her. The plan's fine web of raised lines looks like an elaborate decorative pattern, suggesting a leaf of handmade stationery or a large sheet from which doilies are about to be cut. Though Downey has consulted on other architects' projects since going blind six years ago, this one marks a turning point for him. The community center is the first space he's designed since losing his sight. The center recently opened its doors to the public with a celebration to inaugurate the new space, located on Howard Street in the city's Yerba Buena district, just down the block from the Moscone convention center. But on this May afternoon, the walls are just beginning to go up.
posted by ellieBOA (4 comments total) 19 users marked this as a favorite
This is awesome. Thanks for posting.

Part of Mr. Conspiracy's job involves reviewing architectural drawings and site plans for accessibility. He once got into a fight with some idiots from Infrastructure Ontario who were insisting on a particular design revision in the plans for prominent municipal building that they were partially funding, but for which he was responsible for reviewing for accessibility.

The architects had proposed an elegant and visually appealing solution to an exterior accessibility feature, which he was thrilled with. It looked great, integrated well with the overall design and solved an accesibility problem. Win-win, right?

The bureaucrats were having none of it because of some technicality on a nominal cost (in rounding error territory) attached to the change. They proposed their own version of the change, which was fugly beyond belief.

The meeting devolved into an argument wherein the bureaucrats said they were offended that Mr. Conspiracy, a blind guy, was telling them that what they wanted was ugly.

Anyway, this was a really great point in the article:

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) includes requirements for the visually impaired, not all of them attentively enforced. Measures like braille signage and tactile paving (those bumpy strips that signal a transition from sidewalk to street) are universal. But Downey has found that design teams often overlook rules governing protruding objects like diagonal braces or wall sconces, which are too high to detect with a cane but not high enough to ensure that no one will walk into them. "A lot of architects I've talked with, it's not willful—they don't know it's an issue," says Downey. "You can see when somebody can't roll up stairs or reach from a wheelchair to get something. "It's hard to visualize what it's like to see from behind somebody else's eyes."

Having Braille signage is token accessibility posturing when your design is full of stuff that it's easy for someone to smash their face into.
posted by mandolin conspiracy at 6:48 AM on April 21, 2015 [6 favorites]

Accessibility is an ongoing battle, even when the org is aware of the concept of accessibility -- a recent government building in another province had power doors at the entrances (push a button, the door opens), but nowhere else in the building, most egregiously being the washrooms.
posted by Mogur at 7:18 AM on April 21, 2015 [2 favorites]

Very cool article. The sconces- ugh. Drives me nuts. Even worse is the fad of angled walls and po-mo buttresses at ground level- just begging for people to walk into them and bash their heads (walking while viewing cellphone for example). The thing about ADA is that it protects all of us; we are all (hopefully) going to grow old. I was blind for a brief period due to some eye surgery and the fear of climbing stairs alone, using the bathroom (ditto), walking into corners, etc. is something I remember vividly- but I hope it has made me a more well rounded architect- and person.
posted by T10B at 7:31 AM on April 21, 2015 [6 favorites]

I'm going to be picky about the title. He's NOT just reframing design for the blind. He's reframing it for everyone, including people with multiple disabilities, and that's a critical point.

As TFA states, he has consulted on a polytrauma center for veterans, which is a huge deal when people are coming back with major issues related to vision AND dexterity AND mobility AND brain injuries. (Or people who have one kind of disability acquire another one later in life, or something like diabetes affects both mobility and vision -- which happens a lot with aging veterans.)

But there are so many other applicable things about design for blind people that can help people with other disabilities. Keeping the floors clear and smooth but still easy to navigate, for example, while still making it interesting from a deign perspective (visually or otherwise). Learning to work within the ridiculously small budgets that most nonprofit groups have. Making spaces safer for everyone in situations when you need to find things quickly or figure out how to go somewhere without many hints.

The more obvious angle is universal design, where we should support accessibility in every way we can because a) it has applicability for people who don't (currently) have a disability, and b) you never know when you might acquire one, temporarily or otherwise.

Quick side note: until I read this article, I didn't realize that the bumps on curb cuts were tactile things for blind people. I live in a snowy area, and I thought they were at the very least for people with mobility issues to get traction. But I personally appreciate the traction they give my non-disabled feet when the curbs are awash in four inches of slush.

So yay for him, and yay for everybody!
posted by St. Hubbins at 10:07 AM on May 18, 2015 [1 favorite]

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