Barriers to Independent Living: Architecture

Published February 16, 2022

Inaccessible design impacts our mobility. Physical barriers can mean fewer doctor’s visits due to inaccessible offices, housing discrimination due to unmet accommodations, and an inability to live independently − all of which contribute to unnecessary stress, lower graduation rates, higher unemployment and homelessness, and even higher fatality rates in pedestrian travel.

We examine how architecture and design impact independent living. 

Staples of daily life are inaccessible

Moving through most cities, especially crowded metropolitans can be a challenging experience. So much so in fact, the United Nations deemed poor architectural accessibility a significant challenge of high global priority.

Inaccessible restaurants are a direct example of these shortcomings. As disability activist Ace Ratcliff expressed to Eater, inconvenient and often stressful dining experiences are far too typical for people with disabilities. Obstacles like steps and inaccessible routes start at the entrance. 

Heavy doors or broken automatic doors can be tough to navigate. Restaurant host stands are typically designed for nondisabled individuals. Benches occupying waiting areas leave little to no space for people who use mobility devices. And dining tables themselves are not always very welcoming or offer enough room − if there is any accessible seating at all (5% of all seating is actually required, though local agencies rarely enforce this requirement after construction).

People with disabilities often have to contact restaurants beforehand to inquire about the accessibility of the facility, but should a dining experience be so complicated?

Ratcliff doesn’t think so. When speaking on their hopes for future outings, Ratcliff said:

I like to imagine the day when I’ll be able to roll up to any restaurant without calling beforehand and experience a smooth, stress-free dining experience from start to finish.

Over 30 years after the signing of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), 1 out of 5 individuals with a mobility disability report that they encounter a barrier to independent living every day. 

Impact on school and work

Students and faculty face constant obstacles due to physical barriers in school. A recent national survey showed that nearly 70% of United States public schools have physical barriers that limit access for people with disabilities − something school administrators blame on funding.

Some undergraduate students with disabilities report trouble reaching the few accessible entrances to their classes available on campus. There’s also an issue of student housing meeting the needs of students with disabilities. 

But what about individuals with disabilities who graduate, or those already in the workforce?

When not worrying about how to get to work, many individuals with disabilities face a number of physical obstacles to gainful employment. Of the most prominent barriers is the overall bias towards non-disabled individuals within society.

For example, older offices might lack automatic doors, wide hallways fit for wheelchairs, or assistive technologies like Braille devices for their physically disabled employees. Unintentional negligences like these can be the deciding factors to whether or not someone can work at a given company. And they contribute to alarming statistics placing much higher unemployment rates on people with disabilities.

Infrastructure progressions

Society benefits from accessible infrastructure − and rapid shifts in metropolitan demographics are pushing architects into more accessible designs.

By 2050, 6.25 billion people are expected to be urban dwellers, and 15% of them will have at least one disability. Cities around the world are meeting future demands with innovative ideas. For example, Seattle, a very hilly and often inaccessible city, just created an accessible sidewalk mapping app. Chester, a historic city in northwest England just took a number of actions towards modernization and accessibility leading to it becoming the first British city to win the European commission’s Access City award.

Schools are working to modernize as well. About 70 percent of school districts in the United States report some plans to improve the physical accessibility of their facilities within the next three years − upgrades that are 30 years past due. 

Conclusion

Removing barriers in our buildings and cities helps all people, not just people with disabilities. Stair-free structures can be helpful to travelers with luggage, wide pathways aid parents with strollers, automatic doors are supportive for families with small children, and the list goes on.

Of course, convenience for all is an excellent benefit to accessible architecture. But it's important to remember that as long as these challenges exist, barrier-free independent living for many Americans remains a distant, albeit possible future.

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