Understanding Impairment and the Human Experience in Space Design

The acronym “ADA” and the requirements (and detail oriented headaches!) that come along with all the requirements are well known among design professionals. But how often do we become complacent in just accepting that meeting the minimum requirements is “good enough”? This question has reaches far beyond the scope of space design, but for today we will limit this conversation to the impact on space design.

Unfortunately, where the ADA is concerned there are many times when the words “ accessibility” or “inclusion” elicit groans from professionals tasked with incorporating these concepts into their professional results. I get it, there are a lot of boxes to be checked.

Why are we so afraid to push the envelope in design?

I inherently believe that people are good and well intentioned. I do not believe that any design professional makes an intentional effort to create design that excludes members of our communities from being successful in the space.

I believe gaps in accessibility when it comes to space design are rooted in a lack of understanding.

What do we do when we have a knowledge gap? It is human nature to trend toward self-preservation, to fear the unknown and avoid situations where the outcome has potential for insult or embarrassment.

Gaining an understanding and being able to talk about impairments and disability experiences strengthens our professions and our communities. Two of the most impactful tidbits are:

  1. People have impairments and may experience disability. 

  2. The impairments and disabilities experienced may be temporary, permanent or situational.

    Photo Credit: Microsoft Accessibility Handbook

The question to address is how do our design choices accommodate each of these considerations?

Why is it important to go beyond the minimums of ADA requirements in design efforts in our communities?

Oh, the ADA. The guiding principles in compliant design. Don’t get me wrong, these mandates were a great first step to the greater vision of accessibility in our community spaces. However, compliance alone does not guarantee an optimal end result.

What if I told you that you could “check the ADA boxes” with less headaches if your design concepts intentionally went beyond the minimums mandated?

Should the professional perspective not be focused in Universal Design concepts? This results is a win-win for the designers and occupants of the designed spaces!

At any given time there are, on average, 20% of our community members with a reported disability. That equates to around 57 Million people nationally. With an increase in an understanding of the various impairments and the challenges various design features present, we can advocate for the least restrictive option. We can actively reduce the disability experienced in our community spaces. In addition, gaining knowledge in impairment and the language of disability gives greater confidence in exploring new design options and advocating for smarter design choices with your clients.

By doing this, you can help your client see the possibilities to expand their client/customer and employment base with a more functionally accessible physical space.

Design evolution that has resulted from the mandates of the ADA have ultimately resulted in design features we all benefit from, not just the individuals the mandate was designed to accommodate.

For example, ADA actuators. These resulted from an ADA mandate for creating equal opportunity for physical access to public spaces. As a mom of young kids, and a business owner who is always hauling arms full of stuff, my life would be infinitely more challenging without access to the automatic doors we take for granted. Have you ever tried to hold open a door and maneuver a clunky stroller through a doorway while holding the door open with an elbow, toe or whatever would reach? Replace the stroller with a cane, walker, wheelchair, rolling oxygen tank or any other element that is an extension of the individual wanting to access the space.

Additionally, I bet you haven’t given a second thought to the waist height counter area at retail, restaurant or other commercial areas where you set your bag, coffee mug or other items to complete your transaction. These spaces were part of the ADA mandated efforts to create equal access to retail/counter spaces in public environments. My point is we all benefit from smarter, more functional design choices.


Gender neutral bathroom design has become a greater focus in recent years. Why is this concept so impactful to a wide array of our community members? First, as a female, why are the lines to women’s restrooms always 10x longer to the men’s restrooms!? A gender neutral bathroom design would increase my access to a bathroom as needed. With regard to individuals with impairments, this concept can lead to increased inclusion in our communities. For a parent of a child of opposite gender who needs assistance, either for safety or physical assistance, a gender neutral bathroom design creates the opportunity for them to provide said assistance in an appropriate and dignified manner.

A mother of a 20 year old son once told me a story of having to repeatedly pop her head into the men’s restroom at a restaurant to check on her son for safety reasons. This is not dignified for the mother, son or other restaurant patrons.

If we integrate an understanding of impairment to the box of tools used in making design choices, as well as incorporate both Universal Design and Inclusive Design principles in each step of the process, the result is inherently more functional accessibility. These tools serve as a means for checks and balances as we work through the design phases – physical lay out, visual components and finishing selections.

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After all, isn’t that the goal of architectural and interior design – an enjoyable, visually pleasing space that is functional to use for ALL members of the community?

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