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Accessible Design in 2019 & Beyond

by Garrett Fleming

Accessible Design in 2019 & Beyond, Design*Sponge

At our farewell celebration at Philadelphia’s Terrain last week, amidst steady laugher and clinking glasses, I met one of our readers who told me about her work advocating for accessible design. She mentioned her latest projects and the numerous times she’d shared our content with her cohorts and friends. As she spoke, a giant grin crossed my face, for more than any other topic we’ve covered in my five years on the Design*Sponge team, I’m most proud of our work celebrating the massively underrepresented community of those with disabilities (or as some prefer in the community, different abilities).

My work on the topic of accessibility began in 2016 when our team was looking to explore deeper issues related to design. Admittedly, I knew next to nothing about the field. I did, however, know that I was shocked by accessibility’s lack of representation within our community. Since then, families from across the country have graciously let me share their stories, homes, the challenges and the triumphs that have come from decorating for all. I can’t stress enough how much we truly appreciate their honesty and openness.

When I was thinking about how to wrap up our coverage of this topic, I admit I was at a bit of a loss. I quickly realized, however, that the best people to speak about the future of accessible and universal design are the families who have welcomed us into their homes. To each and every one of you who have lent your expertise to this piece (and our coverage over the years), I hope you know we truly see you. We love and value your voices and experiences. We celebrate them. We will always fight alongside you for inclusion. And today, we look to you to guide the future of design to be more welcoming than ever. It has been my distinct pleasure to share your voices. Thank you. Garrett

LeAnne & Derek Lavender

LeAnne and Derek Lavender remodeled their Mid-Century home in Indianapolis, IN and made it totally wheelchair-accessible.

Accessible Design in 2019 & Beyond, Design*Sponge

Portrait by Cory Philips

D*S: If homeowners could do one thing to make their home more welcoming to those of all abilities, what would it be?

LeAnne: If you have a guest coming to your home with a disability, literally put yourself [in] their shoes throughout your home. For instance, if you were to have us over for dinner, you could simply sit in your office chair and roll around the main parts of your home. Are your dog bowls sticking out in the hallway or does your table need to be lifted with a stack of books in order for you to roll under it? Just some simple changes can make a big difference! 

D*S: What current interior design/decor trend is the most accessible in your opinion? What trend is the least?

LeAnne: Most: Large, open bathrooms. Gone are the days of garden tubs and toilets enclosed in a closet in the bathroom. Goodbye and good riddance! 
Least: Tall, canopy-styled beds seem to be making a comeback. Although they can certainly be a statement piece in a bedroom, if you have to hop to get into bed at night, there’s no way someone with a disability can easily transfer. 

For beds, you ideally want the top of the mattress to be around 25” off the ground. Select a frame that also has at least a 3” gap from the floor so a Hoyer Lift can easily slide under the bed and assist the person.

Rachel Fox Kipphut

Rachel, her husband Scott, and their three children recently left their townhome in Raleigh, NC for Bentonville, AR – a state with schools that focus on the inclusion of differently-abled children.

Accessible Design in 2019 & Beyond, Design*Sponge

Portrait by Scott Kipphut

D*S: Is there anyone who is inspiring you right now with their inclusive work?

Rachel: I love Wolf + Friends. Their platform is designed to connect and highlight those in the special needs community as well as educate others who may not be. One of the great things about Wolf + Friends is that they have a focus on toys, clothing and design that is for children of all abilities that are actually fun and stylish… such as active seating, books for anxiety, picky-eater solutions, adaptive clothing, sensory-friendly kids bedroom ideas, modern furniture, sensory swings and more in one spot.

D*S: Describe a moment when you/your loved ones felt left out of the design conversation.

Rachel: Playgrounds were always a big bummer when Eva was little because she couldn’t do stairs and definitely not ladders until she was confident. Her peers could, and they would run and climb without her. She was left out. Within the last two years, we now have several inclusive playgrounds in the area, which is wonderful! Eva has since mastered stairs and climbing, so this would have been helpful in Eva’s toddler years. What these experiences have taught me (good and bad) is to talk about these experiences with those that are inquiring. That, and to have patience. This train is moving slow, but it is moving forward.

Amy Webb

Amy Webb inspired us all when she renovated her home’s bathroom to be wheelchair accessible.

Accessible Design in 2019 & Beyond, Design*Sponge

Portrait by Momoko Fritz

D*S: What is your outlook on the future of design as it relates to accessibility?

Amy: My outlook is a slightly pessimistic but hopeful [one]. It’s hard to imagine a future where people will actually design their homes with accessibility in mind, but that’s my dream. There is not one family member of ours who thought about making their home accessible for our daughter – their niece, granddaughter, cousin, etc. – when making design choices for their home. I’m not mad at or blaming them because I don’t think I would have either. It doesn’t feel like a “thing” yet. We’re not there. I’m hoping in the future it feels like a “thing” not just to make sure their home is accessible for all people, but also as an investment in themselves. If a person wants to have their “forever home” it makes sense to make it accessible for themselves down the road, or to at least have a plan in place to transition it down the road.

D*S: What advice would you give to someone who is just starting to make their home accessible?

Amy: In the case of your home, make it work best for your person or people. If you’re a parent designing around the needs of a child, try to think about the solutions that will work best for the present and the future. Hard, I know, but give their ability to access something in the future the benefit of the doubt. For example, I’m not sure if my daughter will be able to use the microwave independently in the future, but we placed the microwave low, underneath the counter so that she would at least have the opportunity to try.

D*S: What do you feel is the greatest hurdle we as a design community have to overcome in order for accessible design to be more commonplace?

Amy: First, representation. The disability community is the largest minority group in the world, but the least represented in the media. 1 in 5 people has a disability in the world. The second hurdle, as I see it, is a combination of choosing function over form. And a big part of the reason that happens is cost. Homes can be accessible and beautiful, but when you add affordability to the equation you’re back at square one. I hope that the design community can start to extend their ideas to the disability community and realize that, like anyone else, people with disabilities deserve beautiful and thoughtful design without the much higher price tag.

Homes can be accessible and beautiful, but when you add affordability to the equation you’re back at square one.

D*S: What current interior design/decor trend is the most accessible in your opinion? What trend is the least?

Amy: In general, a home that is more minimal with furnishings and clutter will be easier for people of all abilities to navigate than a home where there is a lot of stuff crammed into a space. I’m not saying that you have to be a hardcore minimalist to have an accessible home, but I would say that maximalist design would be pretty difficult for someone with a disability to navigate (depending on the disability, of course). Oh, and touch faucets are an amazing and accessible feature for any home.

Laura Dickson

Laura, who has a degree in interior design, optimized her mother’s home in order to make it beautiful in both form and function.

Accessible Design in 2019 & Beyond, Design*Sponge

Photo courtesy of Laura Dickson

D*S: In your opinion, has the design world made progress in being more inclusive of those with different abilities?

Laura: Yes! It has made great strides! People are more accepting, but there is still a lot of room to grow. What holds the design world back most is being stuck in the past and having a traditional mindset. We need to look beyond the standard layout and style of a home and rethink it it to be more inclusive. For example, the coffee table. What could you replace it with so that space can be left open for a wheelchair to pass through? The more designers can see the finished results in use, the more they will be able to revise and adjust to make [products] more functional and practical.

D*S: What is your outlook on the future of design as it relates to accessibility?

Laura: Every year technology gets better and is being incorporated into the home, which is awesome for accessibility.

Pati Robins

Pati Robins has infused the wheelchair-accessible home she shares with her husband Colin, a veteran, with her colorful and bold style.

Accessible Design in 2019 & Beyond, Design*Sponge

Portrait by Pati Robins

D*S: What is your outlook on the future of design as it relates to accessibility?

Pati: I think we have a long way to go when it comes to good design for accessible homes. Sure there are companies who make stunning items, but price points are a bit steep. What I do love is the fact that people who live in accessible homes are getting creative and adapting those (unglamorous) standard adaptations to perfectly blend in within their homes.

D*S: What advice would you give to someone who is just starting to make their home accessible?

Pati: Plan your adaptations well. Sometimes the bare minimum that you or your family member needs might not be enough in the long run. Over the last 13 years we have had our home turned into a building site by adding more things that needed to be fitted. It was messy and stressful.

Ludmila & Mario Guzman

Ludmila Guzman and her husband recently gave their kitchen a makeover that was equal parts eclectic and functional.

Accessible Design in 2019 & Beyond, Design*Sponge

Photo courtesy of Ludmila Guzman

D*S: Is there anyone who is inspiring you right now with their inclusive work?

Ludmila: […] When it comes to specific inclusive design, so far the best inspiration has been the hospitality industry. Mario and I love to travel extensively, and seeing what works and what doesn’t (Hello, super-high bed frames and terrifying showers!) has allowed [us] to incorporate some of their solutions in[to] our design.

There are plenty of differently-abled people who are very talented and lack opportunities for work, much less design work. Their voices should be heard.

D*S: What do you feel is the greatest hurdle we as a design community have to overcome in order for universal and accessible design to be more commonplace?

Ludmila: Lack of input from people who are actually disabled. Before my husband became ill, what I considered accessible was very far from the truth. There are plenty of differently-abled people who are very talented and lack opportunities for work, much less design work. Their voices should be heard.

D*S: What current interior design/decor trend is the most accessible in your opinion? What trend is the least?

Ludmila: The least one would be vintage/boho, which is a shame because I personally love it. But the reality is that most vintage furniture is not accessible, claw-feet tubs are dangerous even for an able-bodied person, and the emphasis [on] vignettes, rugs and accents make mobility a challenge when you have a mobility impairment.

Further Resources

  • Wolf + Friends – An app for connecting parents of differently-abled children.
  • Sea Chrome – A collection of innovative and accessible interior products.
  • The Accessible Home: Designing for All Ages and Abilities by Deborah Pierce – A book all about creating “wonderful places where people with disabilities can live comfortably and safely.”
  • Born Just Right – An upstart (and book) by mother-daughter duo Jen and Jordan Reeves focused on helping “build creative solutions that help kids with disabilities live a more enjoyable life.”
  • The House Designers – Ready-made, ADA-approved blueprints for building an accessible and/or universally designed home.

People To Follow

  • Wheel Chic Home – A compendium of modern, inclusive homes.
  • Jordan Reeves – A teen amputee whose ingenious, glitter-cannon prosthetic garnered her worldwide attention.
  • Maegan Blau – After renovating her first home to meet her accessibility needs, Maegan now works on spaces for clients with different abilities.

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Comments

  • You should check out the work that Ikea is doing to improve accessibility with their ThisAbles campaign! It’s awesome.

  • THIS is why I’m going to miss D*S* so much!!

    I think there’s a image that people may have of what a disabled person’s home would look like — ugly ‘institutional’ looking furnishings with no style what-so-ever.

    But by showcasing these homes that are so beautiful and bursting with incredible style while at the same time functioning for the families’ needs, you have blown that image out of the water. And the personal stories may help enlighten others about the challenges people with disabilities face — and overcome — everyday.

    Thank you, Grace & the D*S* team!

  • Thank you for this article. It really made me re-think the remodel plans for a short term vacation rental we’re working on and the importance of accessibility, especially for persons using wheelchairs. Unfortunately it’s not something we would have considered a priority, so thank you. Now, we will make the necessary changes based on the suggestions provided. Again, so appreciate you using this platform to share such invaluable info. Your unique vision and voice will be missed.

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