As the Coronavirus slowly began to cripple the Hawaiian islands and we were all sheltered-in-place, I was reminded of the parallels of our sheltering in place to the daily challenges of the elderly and disabled.
Most of us go in and out of our homes several times a day without much thought that it is a privilege not available to everyone. And then one day, quickly and without much warning, we are told we cannot leave our houses except for essentials. We have a car and no place to go, beaches we cannot enjoy, a job that, unless we can perform virtually, may no longer exist. Now imagine a person who has this same experience every day because they are elderly or have suddenly become disabled.
As we struggle to conform to the new normal, we may become frustrated because many of our homes are not equipped with amenities that would make our shelter in place an easier transition. Maybe you have a small space and cannot store extra necessities or you have no office space but still have to perform work duties. These challenges, for many of us, are temporary and will end when we resume whatever will be the new normal. But until then, we are frustrated with our situation.
For extroverts, this new normal can be a struggle, both mentally and physically. They often thrive on human connection, interaction, movement and group activities. They enjoy having others over to visit. Their loneliness can lead to depression or a feeling almost worse than actually contracting the flu virus!
All of the above scenarios are very common amongst the aging and disabled demographics. Imagine some of the same situations only there is no end. Your car keys have been taken away permanently, you may have to move to a place that does not offer you the same comforts you currently have in home or, worse, you are at home and cannot work well within your confines. Now is the time to begin a conversation with yourself or significant others about aging in place. As a designer, my job is to take all these scenarios into consideration and design a space that has flexibility for hobbies or recreation, outdoor living spaces and bathrooms and kitchens with accessibility. Don’t wait until it’s too late and your shelter in place frustration is permanent.
Late last year I was asked to do a segment with KITV on their Aging Well Segment to show an example of a universally designed bedroom and bathroom I did for a client. During the interview I was explaining what Universal Design is and offered an example of the difference between Universal Design and designing to age in place The example I gave was that when an accessible entrance and a traditional entrance are put near one another, everyone just naturally used the accessible entrance because it was more comfortable, i.e. it was wider, easier to open etc. But in many designs, we are prompted to feel that we should not use that entrance, that is only for the impaired. (This example applies to the restrooms for sure, but unfortunately there is never enough room to build all the stalls with ADA dimensions)
I’m not sure my example really had an impact and since then I’ve been looking for examples to better explain what I do as a primarily universal designer and how it can change the way we look at our environment. And then I read an article about the recent remodeling of the Oslo Metro in Norway.
When they redesigned the space they reversed all wayfinding cues so that an accessible exit was just marked EXIT and all other exits that required specific mobility skills had the pictograms that we typically see for the handicapped. The use of signs was thus reversed. The accessible exit became the obvious exit for all travelers, needing no special marking. Other exits were marked with their specific restrictive properties….it was a subtle, but important, manifestation of a change of mindset.
It is a large scaled example of what we do for client’s bathrooms, kitchens, etc. every day. When a space works for everyone, there is no need for a sign to remind someone of their disability. We all have disabilities of some sort at some time in our life. Design can move us past singling them out with signs.