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Designing for Everyone (Really)

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This fall – like at universities around the country – students filled with nervous excitement and anticipation moved into a brand-new residence hall at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater. This EUA-designed residence hall, however, is unlike most it was specifically designed to elevate the resident experience by focusing on equity and inclusion. UW-Whitewater (UWW) is a national leader in providing specialized services to students with disabilities, making it one of their top priorities. Here at EUA, it’s been our privilege to help them accomplish this mission.

While most people would agree that designing to ADA standards is a good (and legally necessary) approach, the UWW and EUA team viewed it more as the bare minimum; And for these students, the bare minimum simply is not enough. It’s hard enough for anyone to transition to college, worrying about things like, “Will I like my roommate?” or “What if I go to the wrong class on my first day?” without having to worry about things like, “Can I open the door once I get there?” With almost 10% of students utilizing services offered by the Center for Students with Disabilities (CSD), UWW is committed to the higher accessibility standards of Universal Design across their campus, including in the new residence hall. The idea behind Universal Design was not to design a space to be accessible for most people, but rather to design for individuals who require the most assistance.

“Universal design is never an afterthought or special consideration at UW-Whitewater. In fact, it stands out as one of the few institutions willing to employ universal design in all campus buildings. The university has a policy in place to ensure that universal design is a standard for all new construction or remodeling on the campus. This inclusive approach is felt across the student body as student with disabilities do not face barriers to interacting with the rest of the student body within living arrangements, clubs and organizations, sports, or classes anywhere on campus.” From UW-Whitewater's Center for Students with Disabilities.

I’m totally inspired by UWW’s commitment to their students with disabilities, and most inspired by the students themselves. We worked with EUA’s in-house Universal Design Expert, as well as the UWW Center for Students with Disabilities (CSD) to better understand what design decisions we could make to best serve the student population. During our design meetings, we were challenged to think of ways to allow occupants to be more independent. Typically, architects design to accommodate individuals who are in wheelchairs or visually impaired, per ADA standards. The CSD helped us to go beyond that and be conscious of ways we can assist those with other challenges, such as sound, scent and light sensitivities. As an architect, this was a really impactful experience for me. I realized I have enormous freedom that I often take for granted. I also realized that I have the power to make people feel more comfortable by very consciously trying to experience the world through their perspective and responding with design. The better people can experience and maneuver through a space, the more confident and independent they will feel – something that’s important and desired by any college student, but in particular one who often has greater barriers stacked against them. If I can help remove possible triggers and barriers, I can help give students a healthier and more enjoyable college experience.

With guidance from the CSD, we carefully thought through the bigger picture of navigating and utilizing this facility as well as the details that, although seem small, could make an enormous difference to some. Two types of living space pods, which both include double rooms with a shared bathroom, were incorporated in the building. All pods are designed to ADA requirements and the enhanced pods take it a little further to be even more accessible to students. Doing this allows students to go visit friends in any room throughout the hall without having to worry about being able to maneuver around, particularly in a wheelchair. This way, students with disabilities don’t feel like they are bound to the handicap accessible rooms in the building, requiring people to come to them. This effectively eliminates physical restraints as well as potentially emotional and social ones, which are just as important to consider, by offering students inclusive environments for an equitable experience to their peers.

I know it can be tempting to just do the minimum saving money and space, but accessibility is not a luxury. We worked with UWW to carefully weigh the different design decisions that would improve accessibility against their budget to determine the value added, and their answer was almost always yes. Their highest value was providing their students with as much independence as they could afford. I don’t want to give the impression that the more you design for accessibility, the more expensive a project will be as this is not always the case. Some of the design decisions we made did cost more money, other things didn’t increase costs at all. For example, we selected finishes that were high contrast, making wayfinding easier for those with visual impairment and textured pavement to delineate different areas, such as a walking path from a seating area to sit and study. These things may not be obvious to most, but if they can help reduce stress so students can be more at ease and focus better, they are worth it.

It’s truly been a great learning opportunity for me to work on this project, as well as a great honor. The team I worked with pushed me to get out of my able-bodied self to understand the stressors and needs others encounter daily. These are lessons that help shape me as an architect and as a person. My challenge to you is to do the same – to really, consciously look from someone else’s perspective and try to understand what it’s like to experience the world from their vantage point. How can you contribute to making everyone’s experience at college and in life better?

Universal Design Expert