Thinking SmARTer: Designing smart accessibility for all

Accessibility – A glimpse into an exciting world without barriers for those who live with handicaps.

Thinking SmARTer: Designing smart accessibility for all

Your alarm shrieks, prompting you to drag yourself through the daily routine of brushing your teeth, showering, and getting dressed. As you exit your home out into the brisk wind of an autumn morning, you glance at your clock; you are not running late for work. For once. You decide to grab a cup of joe on your way into the office. You heard about a new coffee shop right down the street that everyone in the office is raving about. Apparently, their scones are to die for. You make your way across the bustling street, alive with the buzz of the morning commute, and roll up to the front of the coffee shop. The smells of coffee and just a hint of cinnamon beckon to you from the top of the stairs leading into the shop. You stop. You have to. You can only stare up at the door, perched at the top of three little stairs. You cannot enter. Turning around and shake off the disappointment, you continue on your way to your usual coffee shop, a little further down on 5th, and then on to work.

What just happened? Where did you go wrong? You could have just walked in, grabbed your cup of coffee and a scone and moved on with your morning. For some, there lies the problem. What if you could not just “walk” in? What if you were wheelchair bound? This particular coffee shop has no handicap ramp, no alternative entrance, no accessibility.

The day to day lives of non-wheelchair users include all of the seemingly small tasks seen above. Some of the easily forgotten tasks such as riding the public bus, shopping for groceries, or maneuvering through a crowded parking lot, can quickly become more time consuming and complex for those who are wheelchair-bound or otherwise require additional equipment to move about their day.


This is where accessibility comes in to play. The idea of accessibility is generally defined as the design of items, services, or environments for those who experience physical, emotional, or mental disabilities. Accessibility impacts a large percent of the population, and in 1991, the U.S. government formed the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). This act requires all the state and local governments to make their common public spaces handicap accessible.

To keep up with the times and changing needs of those who experience disabilities, the ADA was revised in 2010 to cover a wider range of disabilities and improve the overall daily lives of those affected. This is fairly effective against government local and state agencies, though harder to enforce in private businesses.
The solution seems simple: Install ramps, support bars, or push-button doors. According to Pat Deurell, a sculptor, contractor, and designer, the problem is that many businesses don’t have the funds to make their spaces accessible, it never occurs to them, or they find them unattractive/cumbersome to fit in to their environment. “I work to make designs like this both beautiful and functional.”

Designers in the Field.

Pat designs and implements various solutions for both private and public spaces. In recent years, she has begun passionately emphasizing the accessibility of the spaces she designs, an area that she feels is underserved. She keeps a small studio in the Upper Valley of New Hampshire, though she often meets clients on site to dream up her designs and craft sketches. Pat leans over a detailed foam model of a reception design she is readying to present to a client, adjusting a small piece of the foam floor lovingly.

“[Accessibility] means something to everyone, even if they don’t realize it. Someday I might have a walker or a wheelchair… Whatever it is, I would want to know that I can go anywhere I like. I don’t want to have limits on what my life looks like. We are all like that. We all need that.” Pat smiles broadly and sets her model aside.

Pat Deurell recently designed an accessible reception desk for Spark Therapies. She worked with the owners to find their goals, and the restrictions of the space. From this she transitioned an organic, curved, multi-stepped design into an adjustable, wheelchair-accessible writing surface that promotes privacy while retaining client comfort. Of the hand-carved counter top she states, “It is strong, durable, you can lift yourself up with it, if you need to. It is beautiful, what you would expect, but the edges are softened.” She points out the handholds along the side of the piece, that flow into the design. “These don’t stand out. I hear that a lot from clients. They never want support bars to stand out. They want a ‘normal’ looking piece that doesn’t scream, ‘this is for a handicapped person’.”

Therapist Support.

Mary Kyles, an occupational therapist and ergonomic specialist notes the importance of accessibility in businesses for cost purposes, “If we fail to make our surroundings work for everyone, then we could see a real risk of injuries. If we don’t plan for everyone then we all lose.” There are small corrections and decisions we can make, every day that lead up to a more accessible and safer environment for everyone. “If one of my clients buys 20 desks and none of them are wheelchair friendly, they essentially cannot have someone with a wheelchair there comfortably. This is seriously limiting. If they buy the wrong desk…” She lowers her desk chair, “and then you have to lean out of a wheelchair like this,” She reaches up as if to type on a laptop or answer a phone, “My shoulder is out of alignment and my core is off balances and, over time, I will get hurt. That means more claims, more cost, and more unhappy people.”

Visually interesting installments that allow everyone to enjoy the space

Incorporating accessibility into the design of everyday environments could someday become a norm, thus changing the way we view accessibility. According to Karmen, a source for accessible products and solutions, “Probably the biggest challenge is the attitude of society to wheelchair users. Those without physical disabilities might find it difficult to see through the eyes of a wheelchair user. Some typical reactions to wheelchair users include being talked down to, being totally ignored or thinking that the wheelchair user can do more for him or herself.”

Wrap Up.

If we could take the very design of wheelchair ramps and support bars from something that stands out or draws negative attention and turn it into a form of art, we may be able to see accessibility in a new light. If we demand it, then more businesses will be willing to implement these practices in their designs; reducing cost due to injury, improving the overall design of a space, and making a space free for anyone to use.

Welcome to a world open to everyone.


Americans with Disabilities Act (2010). Standards. Retrieved from 2010ADAstandards_index.htm
Karma Health Care (n.d). Daily problems and challenges of using a wheelchair. Retrieved from wheelchair/
Grzeskowiak, J. (2010). How important is handicapped accessibility?. American City and Country. Retrieved from accessibility-lawsuit-20100234
Disabled World (n.d). Disability: Accessibility. Retrieved from disability/accessibility/


The views in this post do not necessarily reflect all views of Spark Therapies, LLC. Research may become outdated over time.

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