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?

What a Rehab Engineer Brings to Your Village

We are excited to be partnering with Seniors Helping Seniors for a series of blogs to help educate and raise awareness of Assistive Technology, especially for families who have a loved one doing everything they can to remain safe and independent at home.

A Rehab Engineer is a great addition to the team supporting a family in these goals –  but many people do not have a clear understanding of what a Rehab Engineer is or what role we play in rounding out your “village”.

Check out our latest blog in the series we authored for them:

What a Rehab Engineer Brings to Your Village

Assistive Technology is Not What You Think it is.

We are excited to be partnering with Seniors Helping Seniors for a series of blogs to help educate and raise awareness of Assistive Technology, especially for families who have a loved one doing everything they can to remain safe and independent at home.  Many times Assistive Technology plays a significant role in achieving this goal – but many people do not have a clear understanding of what Assistive Technology is, or how it can help.

Check out the first blog in the series we authored for them:


A Sense of Independence Matters at Any Age

Tonight while I was watching my 4 year old get ready for bed, she unscrewed the lid from her water bottle, filled the bottle and replaced the lid. The look of elation on her face when she discovered she could reach the faucet and get herself a glass of water was so innocent and joyful. This applies to every new skill she learns. She was so ecstatic when she figured out how to use chopsticks to eat she used them for every meal for a week!

My two year old spends all day, every day, making it perfectly clear that she does not want help with ANYTHING. I mean, just check out the amount of attitude and determination on her face (see below)! In the morning there is no way she is accepting help with putting her pants on, brushing her teeth, eating her breakfast, putting her shoes or coat on. She insists on climbing in and out of her carseat, taking her shoes off and doing every other daily task as independently as possible. 20180330_075415.jpg

The sense of accomplishment witnessed on the face of a child when they get behind the wheel of a customized, accessible ride-on electric car and go where they want, in the path they want, how fast they want, is AMAZING. 20180227_115517

At the other end of the age spectrum and with the introduction of disability, my mother faced declines in her ability to move around the house and perform many daily tasks during her battle with cancer. She was frustrated when she could no longer do her own cooking and grocery shopping. She regained a little light in her week when she discovered online grocery shopping. And she was so grateful when we modified the home environment to accommodate her needs and enable her to navigate to the bathroom and take a shower on her own.

My friend’s mother is experiencing age related decline in her abilities to safely navigate around the house, use the bathroom and perform daily hygiene tasks. She refuses to rely on Assistive Technology and often resists help from family at this stage. She craves the ability to hold on to every last opportunity for independence.

Whether you are 4, 40 or 104, these seemingly small moments of independence matter. They matter A LOT.

Why should we expect that throughout stages of life, or experiences of impairment a person’s desire for independence in daily activities would lessen?

I know, as a caregiver it can be difficult to take a step back and just let things happen. We are protective about the people we love. When you take a step back, sometimes you witness a grand success and other times you are needed to come in to finish the process. But the key is that you first work to enable the person you care about in their attempts to be independent.

Whether through age, illness or other disabling events, the reality is that everyone yearns to maximize their current abilities and strives to achieve their goals. The presence of an impairment does not imply a decreased DESIRE to be independent in tasks, simply because they face new limitations to their abilities.

As a Rehab Engineer my job is to help people of all ages find solutions to their unique challenges with life’s activities; to help them find the customized solution that enables the pursuit of engagement and independence in the life activities that they desire.

The use of simple Assistive Technology solutions, like the ones in Sydney’s case can improve an individual’s ability to feel confident in their daily tasks and give them confidence to pursue hobbies and activities that give their life purpose. Understanding the person’s goals and abilities, as well as how to match a person’s abilities to AT solutions is essential for a comprehensive assessment and positive outcomes.

Sydney independently opening a can

Sometimes the biggest challenge for an individual or family is to know what possible solutions exist in the wide world of Assistive Technology. It can save time and financial resources to have an expert in AT assist in matching a person’s goals and abilities with the best AT solution.

Assistology has the expertise and passion to help empower individuals to reach their potential and gain unrestricted access to educational, vocational, recreational, home, and community activities.

Is there something you or a loved one wants to do with greater independence – give us a call!

It Started with a Vision

As I sit down to write this reflection on the development of Assistology over the last couple of years,  it is easy to recognize the parallels to what my mom must have been going through almost 30 years ago while she and my aunt launched into their dream of creating Children’s Respite Care Center – which continues to flourish all these years later.

My journey with Assistology started with a vision.  A vision about how to better meet the needs for unrestricted access to life’s activities for individuals and businesses in our community. I recognized that there was a lack of expertise available to provide the range of services that were needed.  And there are a vast number and varied types of needs not being met. These “needs” should be a right of human passage.

From the understanding of the range of needs in the community, a vision emerged to provide specialized services in a way that removes barriers and expands opportunities to create unrestricted access to educational, vocational, home, community and recreational activities for all ages of members in our community.

When I think back to March 2017 I am truly blown away by the evolution of Assistology over the past year.

When I launched Assistology, I set out on a path to build a company that would offer Assistive Technology related services in a way that had not been done…maybe had not even been envisioned.

I knew I brought a unique perspective to the table based on personal, educational and professional experiences and that I had the ability to use this skill set for the benefit of individuals with disabilities and the businesses that serve them.

At the same time I secretly harbored a fear that I would be the only person who saw the value in what Assistology was going to offer to the people and businesses in our communities.

That fear quickly dissipated as Omaha lived up to its reputation for generosity – generosity in time, resources, mentors,  and collaborative efforts.

Over the last year the opportunities to positively impact our communities has exploded in more targeted directions than I originally envisioned.

This journey started focused on reaching individuals, but we realized organizations in our communities that serve individuals with disabilities were in need of additional resources to help them best serve their clients.  Businesses throughout the community were lacking in resources and expertise to best enable them to create spaces and provide services in a way that were accessible to and beneficial for all members of the community.

Another enlightenment occurred as I talked with professionals whose job it is to create spaces and design services.  Many reported a lack of education in their academic pursuits related to understanding impairment and how to apply their training to the benefit of the greatest percentage of our populations.  These realizations ignited Assistology’s efforts to develop professional level trainings related to Disability Awareness and Universal Design. They also triggered opportunities to partner with academic institutions to provide educational opportunities relevant to their students for their future professions.

It continues to be evident that the scope of need in our community encompasses all aspects of our community….individuals,  spaces, and specific services.

The year has not been without challenges.  The first was – concisely explaining, “what the heck is a Rehab Engineer?”  Great question! We are awesome, that is what we are! No really, we are trained to understand impairment AND be able to design and apply technological or training based solutions to solve a human centered problem.

Generally and in all seriousness,  people don’t like change. Anytime you push people to think differently you ultimately face a battle against, “The way we are doing things is working just fine”.  It is my job to demonstrate how we can do them better, not just differently. This applies to designing spaces, training staff, creating programs, expanding educational opportunities in impairment and providing Assistive Technology related services.

Another parallel to my mom’s experiences is that there have been regular moments of frustration around reimbursement options for working with state funding sources – such as the Community and Home Based Medicaid Waiver that works to provide services in a home setting and prevent individuals from being unnecessarily relegated to long term care facilities.  It will be a tedious and frustrating educational battle, but we will continue to fight for changing minor points in legislation that will increase an individual’s equal choice in service provider.

A large portion of the year has been focused in raising awareness of the needs and possibilities that exist.  It has been an effort well worth it – people are paying attention! In our initiation year, we have gained over 160 Facebook followers (individuals and businesses) and there have been people from over 28 countries who have checked out Assistology’s website.  In February 2018, a Go Baby Go project we engineered  drew media coverage that was shared across news broadcasts nationally, with a video that was viewed over 117,000 times in the first two weeks!

The other day someone asked me a curious question.

“In your initial year, what were your biggest surprises?”

Over the course of the last year, I have learned MANY things (including that I do not love Quickbooks), but the most impactful has been to never underestimate the breadth of support and opportunity to be found when you believe in yourself.

Coming in a close second is the scope of opportunities that can develop when you present the expertise and resources to accomplish previously undreamed dreams.  Give people the freedom to dream, and the needle on opportunities quickly starts to shift more toward inclusion.

Over the last year we have made great strides toward “Changing the way people experience their world, creating more inclusive communities.”

Some of our favorite highlights from the year:

Co-authoring of Let’s Go Out! A Business Case for Dine-Able Restaurants.  This collaboration with Stuart Shell, an architect, has lead to an presentation at the Rocky Mountain Green conference in Denver, Colorado to talk to architects about the importance of considering the human experience in the design process.

Establishment of co-locating industry partnership with Metro Community College (MCC) Center for Advanced and Emerging Technology.  This academic-industry partnership serves to expose the MCC faculty and student community to the applications of Assistive Technology, and provide the community with greater exposure to the developments in emerging technology and prototype programs. It has also provided a platform to expand continuing education offerings to include Disability Awareness for a Culture of Inclusion and Universal Design for Business.

A Muti-party collaboration with UNMC, UCP of Nebraska and MCC to expand the reach and offerings to provide Go Baby Go modified PowerWheels cars for children with mobility impairments.  This initiative provides an avenue for children to experience early independent mobility, expand opportunities for socialization and further development of motor and sensory skills.

Establishment of a partnership with UCP of Nebraska to launch Tech Tools Lending Library at the Metro Community College Center for Advanced and Emerging Technology.  The purpose being to expand access to adapted toys and equipment for the northeastern communities in the Omaha area. This partnership also supports funding that expands access for individual families to participate in the Go Baby Go program.

Helping an individual pursue their goals for independent living through the application of adapted kitchen equipment and utensils.

The inspection and environmental assessment of a manufacturing and production facility to provide recommendations to further employee safety, productivity and employment opportunities.

I would be remiss to not give a shout out to some key mentors and contributors to the development  of Assistology and its partnerships. Thank you to each and every one of you in the role you have played in fostering the success of Assistology and our ability to remove barriers and expand opportunities.

John Fitzgerald, in addition to my Chief Strategy Officer, he is also my dad and was instrumental in giving me the final push to pursue the development of Assistology.  He is both one of my biggest fans and biggest critics – something we all need!

Joe Rahal, President of Rahal Consulting, has been a key advisor with regard to building relationship, developing partnerships, sales and marketing.  He is both a friend and valued professional resource.

Joyce Davis has been most valuable in her advising of marketing and promotion strategies.  She always pushes me to take things a step further and go outside my comfort zone to really increase the impact of our efforts.

Christine Johnson, as the co-founder of CRCC with my mom she understands the highs and lows in building something needed, but unfamiliar, and has been an asset in providing perspective to situations that arise.

Amber Burk, a long time friend and colleague has offered support and expertise related to grant writing that was instrumental in the establishment of partnership opportunities.

Pat Buffum, stellar graphic designer, and Susan Klaus, talented copywriter, have been an amazing marketing team.  They took the time to get to know me and Assistology and as a result have produced high quality work. They have been extremely supportive and are always willing to offer their honest opinion on ideas.

Thank you to everyone who has supported and partnered with Assistology in the last couple of years.  We had a great year and are immensely excited about what 2018 has in store.

Meaghan Fitzgerald Walls, BS, MSBE, ATP