Accommodationism and universalism in design

As often happens, a couple of postings on other web sites make for an interesting comparison.  The postings concern how disabled or non-standard people have been accommodated in the built environment.

In a recent article, Barbara Penner at the Bartlett School of Architecture reviews the history of household accommodations for disabled homemakers in 20th century America.  Faculty in the Home Economics school at Cornell University tried to design kitchens and household devices to suit the needs of disabled women, e.g., drawers placed where they were more easily reachable for someone in a wheelchair.  Often, they were able to make household chores more manageable for these women.

At the same time, these efforts fit into a social agenda of "liberal belonging", in which accommodations for non-standard people were premised on the assumption that household labour was what these women owed to themselves and society as productive citizens.  In other words, the accommodation was reductive: The built environment was augmented to accommodate disabled women in order to reduce the difference between them and standard homemakers as much as possible.

Meanwhile, a recent episode of 99% Invisible reviews the history of curb cuts.  Curb cuts are small ramps that smooth the transition from sidewalk to road surface, often at street corners.  They were originally intended as accommodations to people in wheelchairs, although they are actually useful to many other sidewalk users.  As such, curb cuts provide a great example of universalism, that is, design that suits a broad spectrum of types of people.

As the posting makes clear, provision of curb cuts were largely the result of sometimes assertive activism on the part of people in wheelchairs themselves, such as Ed Roberts.  In the last twenty years or so, they have become standard practice and are required by legislation, such as the Access for Ontarians with Disabilities Act (2005). 

The activism behind curb cuts contrasts plainly with what might be viewed as the paternalism of the household accommodations mentioned above.  While accommodationism typically seeks to standardize disabled people through design, universalism often seeks to redefine what counts as standard in the first place.

As such, these two cases make for an instructive contrast in social agendas of design.

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