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Accessibility of Architecture


BRISTOL, R.I. – For many students, the routine is the same. When class ends, a rush of hands grab backpacks and make for the door, head down stairs in herds and cross campus to the Commons. Once there, friends climb another flight of stairs, swipe student IDs and settle in for lunch. It seems simple enough.

But how does the process change for those students with accessibility challenges, whether confined to a wheelchair or requiring an assistive walking device? While RWU is an accessible campus in accordance with the Americans with Disabilities Act, the experience remains different from that of able-bodied students. To demonstrate the impact of the built environment in regard to accessibility issues, sophomore students from the School of Architecture, Art and Historic Preservation recently completed the third annual Wheelchair Exercise in an effort to internalize how accessibility regulations inform design.

“The intention is to make students more aware of the physical dimensions of space and the experience of a person in a wheelchair,” explains Andrea Adams, an adjunct professor and co-coordinator of the event. “We want to encourage design on a deeper level – more thoughtful design.”

The exercise, which requires students to navigate through campus while restricted to a wheelchair, teaches students concepts that they likely understand on an intellectual and theoretical level, but may not have experienced physically. Through the completion of several tasks, including playing billiards in the Recreation Center, getting coffee in the Lower Commons and checking for mail in the mailroom, students experience firsthand how directly architectural design impacts accessibility.

“We’re taught to design using a six-by-three foot door,” explains Kristen Weigel ’15. “Pretty much any human being can get through that size door – if they’re walking. But when you put them in a wheelchair, it’s a whole different story. They’re almost scraping their fingers on the sides of the frame.”

And while the Americans with Disabilities Act outlines requirements for building elements like staircase landings and entrance ramps to provide the necessary accessibility, Adams says, many students find that organically incorporating these requirements into a project can prove troublesome. In some cases, adhering to ADA regulations results in designs that pass inspection – but just barely. In an attempt to increase aesthetic appeal, some designers meet the minimum ADA requirements and go no further.

“In reality, when we experience the minimum measurement, it’s really tight,” says Nick Tubach ’15. “We often need more space to be able to turn the wheelchair, or to be able to open the door effectively. It changes your perspective, for sure.”

Before the Wheelchair Exercise was first organized in 2011, students would meet the letter of the law, but really didn’t quite understand why, explains Adjunct Professor and co-coordinator David Corbin. “Once we did this exercise, nobody ever questioned it again. From then on, it’s not an abstract concept.”

Tubach is quick to point out that accessibility issues aren’t limited to those who are chair-bound. “Be conscious of the little details,” he says. “It can make a world of difference.”

In addition to architecture faculty and students, the exercise also included, “Wheelchair Exercise alumni” – upperclassmen who assisted the sophomores in the event, including Juan Ocampo and Michael Mancini, who shared their knowledge of wheelchair use and offered detailed insights into accessibility issues. The Bristol Veteran’s Home, St. Elizabeth Manor in Bristol and Vanguard Home Medical Equipment in Warwick provided wheelchairs for the daylong program.