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IDIC: What is Ableism in Architecture?

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Ableism is incredibly prevalent, and one of the places its most apparent is ableism in architecture. When we think about it, public buildings should be available to every member of the public, but they are not.

First, let’s define ableism. Ableism is the name for discrimination against anyone who is disabled. In architecture, ableism is the absence of features necessary for disabled people to access the space. We can have internalized ableism as well.

Accessible architecture features include ramps, power doors, accessible parking, elevators, wider halls, bigger doorways, curb cuts, low thresholds, braille signage, accessible bathrooms, alternative emergency alert systems, and more. All of these are well-documented architectural options but may not be implemented.

In the United States, new buildings must meet minimum accessibility standards. However, these are not as closely enforced as they could be. Pre-1990 buildings are often inaccessible, even though they’ve had plenty of time to conform to the standards.

Check out this video from California Polytechnic State University (Cal Poly)

The video is about 5 minutes long.

The thing is, at this point, there should be no ableism in architecture. However, like women’s toilet stalls that force us to lean over the toilet to close the door, that is not how it’s happening in the real world.

Ableism in architecture should be a thing of the past. Accessible features should be on the design checklist, like calculating the beam loads or designing the electrical grid. It’s not rocket science.

The thing is, accessible architecture benefits everyone. When an environment is inclusive, more people can be in it with fewer worries. That’s more people enjoying public life, and that helps us as a whole society.

This illustration discusses the curb cut effect, a single accessible feature:

Simple sketch of a scene in a park with many simple humanoid figures. The curb cut is highlighted in red. The devices that benefit from the curb cut are in orange, such as a wheelchair, delivery trolley, stroller, bikes, skateboard, cane, and luggage.
Original image from Sketchplanations at https://sketchplanations.com/the-curb-cut-effect

Combating ableism in architecture is something we can all participate in. We can prefer accessible event venues, ask about accessible features at our favorite stores, notice where there is ableism in architecture still, and even file complaints on non-compliant buildings.

Together, we can do more.

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