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Beyond Access

Episode 12

Episode 12 Guests:
AJ Paron, SANDOW Design Group Executive President, and Design Futurist
Joshua A. Halstead, ArtCenter College of Design and Designmatters Teacher and Design Activist 
Matt May, Head of Inclusive Design for Adobe

Kaelynn Reid  00:04

Welcome to the Alternative Design podcast. We provide an opportunity for creatives to rethink space and how it's designed by inviting unlikely perspectives to the conversation. Whether we're looking at living probiotics for buildings, or exploring the first city to be constructed on Mars, we believe there's innovation to be found in the margins. I'm your host, Kaelynn Reid, market insights leader for Kimball International. Join us as we dive deeper than the mainstream conversations and find alternative ways to design for a better human experience. Graphic design is often thought of as a sister discipline to architectural design. They often go hand in hand and in many instances end up cross pollinating as each requires some basic knowledge of the other. But graphic designers are used to creating user friendly visual content that is deemed neutral, or in other words, creating norms. But what or who is normal? How does the idea of normal shape or design process?  In this episode, we explore the etymology of the term "normal" in order to dismantle its negative influence on the way we design, whether you're in the business of graphics or spaces. We're also going to ask hard questions about whether standards like universal design are supporting inclusion or punting our creativity and offering more opportunities for access. Our discussion features the head of inclusive design at Adobe, Matt May; graphic designer and disability activist Joshua Halstead; an EVP and design futurist at Sandow, AJ Paron. What if I told you that universal design and the desire for a barrier free utopia in the built environment is a myth? But creating spaces that negotiate access can actually welcome differences. This is Episode 12, Beyond Access. Before we start this journey, I'd like to ask that you keep an open mind in regards to our topic, we're going to wrestle with some hard things today, like our history of how we've treated people with disabilities. Or whether we should toss out standards like the ADA in pursuit of including more people and our built environment. Early spoiler alert here, but we do not come to that conclusion.  But here's the deal. If we're motivated to make change and pave the way for true inclusion, not the popular buzzword that everyone keeps using these days, we need to challenge the status quo. And to do that, we need to uncover some root causes of why exclusion happened. But before we do that, I'd like to introduce you to Matt, head of inclusive design at Adobe.


Matt May  02:58

The value to Adobe is not in getting you to adapt to our products, it's about getting what's in your head out onto our screen, and there into the world. And when you change that paradigm, when you change what it is that we're doing, then people start to, their brains start to open up, and they start to realize what they're capable of doing. Instead of just meeting that, we check this thing off, and then we're good to go. Once we started with the inclusive design training, which we did for all of the employees of Adobe Design, and then, since then, for all of the new hires, is, it's our opportunity to go to everybody that's related to the design of our products and say, here's the whole thing, we're just going to break this all open and show you all the ways that people have been excluded from the products that they use for, in the case of photography, decades. That things like skin tone and how it was captured, down to the chemistry of the film, was privileging lighter skin over darker skin. And so recognizing that even in your cameras, there are different chips for light skin versus dark skin to account for that kind of difference. This is SLRs, like digital SLRs today that have these different sensors for sort of facial recognition and capturing in adequate contrast the faces that they capture. So it goes deep. And if you don't think about it from that perspective, if you only think about it from meeting a set of specific criteria, then you don't get very far. Because you never actually challenge the root causes of the exclusion that's happened.  So that's really what we're expecting of our designers now rather than, let's give you a little tool and then you can check if the contrast is okay or whatever. That it's really thinking about things all the way from the history. It's just a holistic view of how we got here. And how do we not fall into the traps of the past as we're building new things?


Kaelynn Reid  05:33

Let's do some root cause digging here for just a moment. Upon reading our next guests book Extra Bold, a feminist inclusive, anti racist non binary field guide for graphic designers, I was challenged with the idea of normal, and how often we use it to describe people and just how dangerous that is. I think you'll realize how language when intertwined with value can be a powerful force for good and for evil. I'd like to introduce author, disability activist teacher and graphic designer Joshua Halstead. 


Joshua Halstead  06:05

So the idea of normal that I write about in the book came from Adolphe Quetelet, who was a kind of young strident mathematician statistician really wanted to make sense of the world to answer the hard questions of the world with numbers. So as the story goes, as it's been historicized is that Adolphe Quetelet is the one who created the standard deviation curve. So before Quetelet, folks were measuring, taking a bunch of different factors, say stars or other factors and averaging it together, and then creating the standard deviations here is that the average of these factors and, and the deviations to the left and to the right, Quetelet took that mathematics and applied it to human features, like height, like weight, where it was applied to create the IQ tests, so statistically identified markers of quote unquote, intelligence and was created a statistically defined average human. 


Kaelynn Reid  07:13

So this is the beginnings of what is called the medical model of disability. It's based on the belief that disability is a problem of the person, whether that be disease, trauma, or other condition that requires treatment in design, it can often surface as needing to fix the person or finding a way for them to adapt to the world. Matt had an example that seemed fitting here.


Matt May  07:35

There's always every few months, there's a BuzzFeed or NowThis article on some designer, that was in an industrial design or electrical engineering program, and they came up with sign language gloves. That's a pretty common one. Or a company that made an exoskeleton or something like that. And the story for that is great. PR people love that kind of stuff, because it caters to this sort of charity or pity model of disability, that here are the saviors that are going to come down and rescue the people by giving them wheelchairs that climb stairs.


Kaelynn Reid  08:12

Again, in this model, the problem's on the person to solve. And while you may be cringing, I'm sorry to say that it gets worse. Much worse. Let's get back to the history of normal that Joshua was highlighting for us. 


Joshua Halstead  08:26

So then there became an average height or an average weight. And these ideas got conflated with values, right? So under this idea of eugenics, where we were looking for—we is not a capital we. A specific subsection of I would say the elites in Europe and parts of South America and the United States, had this idea of progress, where they wanted to steer the human race toward folks who were on the higher end of the bell curve. So folks who had a specific height, a specific way, this specific kind of representation of intelligence, specific kind of physical capacity.  And it was through that, that this idea of normal, through kind of statistical measurement, and then being conflated with ideologies of what progress meant, that normal moved from what Quetelet's conception was, which was there's an average and there's a not average, but the not average is not necessarily bad. But his construction wasn't necessarily as political as Francis Galton who took that and created different sections of the average and aimed to orient people toward the top half of that average. So normal moves from a number to an ideal, and a way of steering society out of this idea, we get the state sanctioned sterilization in the United States. We get things like the Holocaust. We get things like the completely asymmetric incarceration of people of color based on certain kind of constructed, quote unquote attitudinal markers of politeness, or what have you. 


Kaelynn Reid  10:09

While uncomfortable, and very dark. I'd like to quickly come to surface on why we're sharing this story with you. And I'd like to do that by quoting something that Joshua wrote in the book he co-authored. "When it's okay to erase human diversity, you don't plan on diverse bodies being around, so you don't design for them. Galton created a corporeal split between deficient and desirable, design worthy, and a design afterthought."


Joshua Halstead  10:39

It's an incredibly problematic thing. It's one of those things that's again, an apparatus and why it's important to designers is because people started to design for a very small section of that bell curve environments became tightened like the lens, the aperture got tightened from designing a little bit more fluidly, and designing for different possibilities. And we started to create architectural standards guidelines that were oriented toward a very small ideal, not even evidence based norm, but an ideal norm. So that's important, because it's part of the legacy that designers develop. So to become aware of it, and then to start to expand it, this is where we get inclusive, universal, you know, design ideas, this is from that politic of wanting to open that aperture back up. This is how the social model of disability took shape around the 1960s.  The social model of disability rejects the idea that disability is wholly totally in the body of any individual. It would reject the idea that my disability is called arthrogryposis multiplex congenita, as if that diagnosis pre determines the way in which I can thrive in society, and the social model of disability flips, completely flips that paradigm and actually goes as far as to say that disability does not exist in a body at all in its essential form. 


Kaelynn Reid  12:06

In other words, people are not disabled by their bodies, but by their environment. 


Joshua Halstead  12:11

Does the environment create disability? Yes. So when stairs meet a wheelchair user, and there's not a ramp or there's not an elevator, then the question of well, is the wheelchair user totally completely disabled in a vacuum or is the experience of disability the experience of not being able to get from floor one to floor two? Something that the built environment contributes to by not having a ramp, by not having an elevator.


Kaelynn Reid  12:42

It was this shift in perception that paved the way for universal design. And eventually the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act, or ADA.


Joshua Halstead  12:50

I do want to say that universal design was and still is, first and foremost an intervention in the idea of normativity. That was disability-led. It was created by Ronald Mace who is a wheelchair user, an architect who is dissatisfied with the built environment and how much it marginalized him. So he took it upon himself and developed it into a canon that God made and then unmade and remade. And now maybe it's being unmade again, as a set of guiding principles to basically make more places accessible.  So there were things like barrier-free design that were before universal design, but had a state-oriented agenda around it to get workers back to work and to build the economy again. Universal design was something that came through a designer for as a different tune. It's now in international policy and something like the UN guidelines, and it's referenced, and it's more, it's mainstreamed. But it did start as an incision in the normativity of design as a disrupter, which I think is important context.


Kaelynn Reid  13:55

It's important to understand that while universal design and ADA are mainstream now, they started as a challenge to the idea of normal that the social model of disability helped to initiate. They have roots in activism and advocating for communities which had been and still are marginalized. But there's a few cautions when it comes to placing disability squarely in the environment. Tom Shakespeare, not the playwright, but scholar identifies one of them being that the social model of disability can support the idea that the built environment can be made accessible to all people at all times. What's troubling here is that in an attempt to make things accessible, we can unintentionally create standards that actually make human differences less obvious. 


Joshua Halstead  14:41

Maybe a way to take this statement that might be helpful and connecting it to the universal design canon is, if you seek to universalize, then you're going to end up standardizing. If we're seeking this kind of universal, this utopia that works for everyone, everyone, quote unquote, of course, there's a lot of complication in there. But just simply, if we're moving toward this point that is somehow all-inclusive, a kind of a totality, then you're going to be glossing over differences. Disability is a space of conflict, always. We take the word universal, and we think, oh, we're moving toward design for, quote, unquote, everyone, because that's the tagline. But it's an ahistorical idea of universal design that doesn't really take into account where it started, why it started, how long it took, to come up with the principles, how many times the principles changed, and what the deliberative process was for their changing.


Kaelynn Reid  15:41

I get it this idea seems counterintuitive, because standards should be a good thing, an agent of good to enable justice for everyone. And they can be. We're not saying that guidelines or standards are inherently bad. I believe what Joshua is saying is that the ADA we know of now was wrestled over and changed until it became canonized or written into a nice checklist for designers. There are more diverse abilities and needs than are accommodated for in universal design principles. 


Joshua Halstead  16:11

Standards are an important move toward mainstreaming a quote unquote, accessibility so it's on the agenda, otherwise, the need for accessibility because disabled people are still marginalized today, it just is repressed, it's on the agenda. So standards, federal standards, international standards, and precedents are important. And they can also be very limiting if we think about this kind of compliance based way of designing.


Kaelynn Reid  16:39

I recently hosted a panel discussion with a prominent design firm talking about DEIB in education. I brought up a study that I found doing a previous episode of the podcast that featured a study done by Harvard. The study found that when school aged children were given rules to abide by on the playground, they misbehaved and broke almost every single rule. But when the teachers did away with the rules and asked the children to take care of their belongings, and their fellow students, it was like a miracle happened. The children never played better together.  I thought this to be an excellent example of what we could do if we went above and beyond the rules, or simply relied on altruistic intentions to create better outcomes. But their Director of Diversity and Inclusion kindly waited until the end of our discussion, and the recording, to tell me that she wants to challenge this idea. To summarize her words, without rules, justice fades into the background. I was so grateful for this correction, because I think it grounded my idealist leaning ideas about this into reality.  But I think we might want to reframe the discussion. It's not about eliminating the standards or only relying on goodwill to promote justice. It's more of a yes, and. What if we were talking about creating an experience that goes beyond access? Beyond just checking the box? Let's hear some of Matt's thoughts on this. 


Matt May  17:58

The issue that we have is that if you don't treat this as a user experience, if you treat it as a compliance issue, then you want to do as little work as possible to meet that bar. And I think this is where we get into the standards discussion that if you are not thinking about this as a human interface, and you're not taking into account that there's more than one way to use our products than a keyboard and a mouse and a display, or a display and a stylus and a touchscreen, then you want to push this down into something that is as little effort as possible. And usually it's the engineer that ends up inheriting this because they are the last people that touch the product before it goes out into the world.


Kaelynn Reid  18:50

While Matt is talking about this from the standpoint of graphic design, I want to make it crystal clear that designers and architects can take this exact same language that we too have been using in our design process. It's about the user experience. What can we do to surprise and delight the people that are experiencing our spaces? 


Joshua Halstead  19:10

Just recently, a couple of weeks ago, I gave a lecture in my critical issues class at California College of the Arts, and we read Immanuel Kant's what is enlightenment? Because one thing that he says that's really interesting, among others, is this idea of what enlightenment is not, is exporting your own agency to other things. Right? So he had found a problem in his time that people were exporting their critical reasoning to a book, or exporting their moral sensitivity to spiritual teachers, or they were exporting their way of living a healthy life to doctors.  And the issue that he took with that was that we keep asking other sources says rather than looking within ourselves to actually engage with the world. When we're confronted with complex problem, a problem that could really be an opportunity for critical engagement where, you know, punting it to the book, to the experts. It gets to what you're talking about.  So often, because legal precedents for accessibility exist, there's this kind of uptick of inclusive design guidelines, checklists for user experience, for architecture, for landscape architecture, for animation, for environmental design, for product design. There are so many people telling us just like the latest diet, how to do it. And what we see a lot of is folks saying, Okay, there's this thing called accessibility and I'm just going to export my critical engagement, my creative muscle, my activity with the opportunity of access to the guideline, and as long as I do the guideline, then in doing this thing called access, just it's limiting, though I think it's important as a teaching tool and a learning tool. It's not, don't do it, but it's don't rest there because it can be fundamentally transformational. 


Kaelynn Reid  21:11

An example of someone who did not rest on accessibility guidelines is Yannick Benjamin, owner of the new Contento restaurant in East Harlem, New York. He and his co owners George Gallego, Mara Rudzinski, Lorenz Skeeter and Chef Lorenzi made belonging a critical focus in the design of the space, particularly the dining room. Too often the old narrow buildings in New York are subject to ADA law that only requires owners to remove barriers when it's readily achievable. What this translates to is a lot of restaurant bathrooms that are the size of a utility closet.  Even in recently constructed buildings with entrances and restrooms that do comply with ADA guidelines, many restaurants pack in the tables like sardines in hopes of a full dining room on opening night. From the perspective of someone requiring access. This makes the experience more than unpleasant. But contento was committed to making their restaurant as inclusive as possible, offering wide passageways between tables, easy open doors, a bar top built to service wheelchair users, and adaptive flatware. But they didn't stop at accessibility accommodations. They also curated a wine list called wines of impact that focuses on wineries owned by Black and Indigenous people and those with a social justice mission. The restaurant owners, while seemingly doing something radically new, are just embracing a value of hospitality that offers a delightful experience for as many bodies as possible, particularly the ones who traditionally left dining rooms feeling they didn't belong.


Joshua Halstead  22:45

One way that I've heard that shift, really eloquently articulated was by Chris Downey, who was a blind architect, and he said, moving from Universal Design to universal delight. This way of really asking not just, is something accessible? Can we participate in the space? But do we enjoy it? Do we get pleasure? Is it a rich experience? And it really brings into focus the people and the people groups that are prioritized and the richness of experience, of design. So moving away from this idea of conceiving the idea of accessibility in design as this kind of moving through checklists or access problems, quote, unquote, and seeing it as a site for opportunity.


Kaelynn Reid  24:06

How can we take the idea of access and make it an opportunity to create more possibilities in the built environment? We've highlighted how important it is to understand history in order to get to the root causes of exclusion, and how even one word can hold great injustice that needs to be dismantled in order to invite more people to the table both metaphorically and physically. And while we've conceived access and inclusion through the lens of graphic design our sister discipline, if you will, I thought of no one better to speak directly to the architecture and design community about this topic than Executive Vice President and design futurist AJ Peron. AJ has been a long standing advocate and champion of Designing Spaces that accommodate for neurodiversity, authoring several books and acting as a design consultant for healthcare and education interiors. 


AJ Paron  24:56

So I think if we look at the design process, really, a lot of it comes into programming. It's that very initial stage where, you know, a designer and architect are forced to come up with the programming in a very short amount of time for the least amount of money that they can because, you know, everybody's into Value Engineering, right? And so how do we make the process more efficient, more effective. And nor do a lot of places want to actually take the time to be more inclusive in their research. You know, even the end user, itself, they don't want to have everybody give their opinion, they're scared to let everyone give their opinion. And so there's like a group of decision makers that usually they're at an executive level, that don't really understand the work that needs to be done, or the challenges of the employees. And so all sorts of things get missed.


Kaelynn Reid  25:50

This sounds very familiar to what Matt described earlier about engineers inheriting the job of access at the very last step of the product design. Who is the one making decisions about inclusion when it comes to our projects? Who's the expert here? 


Joshua Halstead  26:05

The question that I often get is something akin to what ought we do? What should we do? We have this thing, we want to make it accessible, what should we do? And then I don't answer it, and then it gets more complicated, but the what should we do leaves the status quo untouched, because if we're saying that disability design and accessibility should be led by experts, then that's how society works right now. And that's going to lead to the same kind of structural divisions as we have right now. So I just want to make sure that I'm not saying we're throwing standards out the window. It's a very important part of the history. But as a methodology, in addition to learning these standards, and also the history of them is instead of theorize praxis, right, instead of moving always to what are the concepts? What are the guidelines? What are the ideas that are going to guide our practice, as designers are shifting that paradigm and allowing praxis to create theory. 


Kaelynn Reid  26:59

In other words, action should be our teacher, reality should shape our theory. 


Joshua Halstead  27:05

And I love this quote by Bernard Harcourt, who is a philosopher and a professor of law at Columbia. He says there we are no longer theorizing praxis, but praxis is theorizing us. And I love this idea. Because it gets to the point that I write in the article. And it's include disabled people, as designers, like full stop. 


Kaelynn Reid  27:26

Include disabled people, as designers, full stop. We need to be listening to diverse voices, who actually have the experiences that can teach us how to design environments that meet the various needs of people, specifically those with disabilities. But keep in mind, that includes listening to those that can only whisper or perhaps cannot speak at all.


AJ Paron  27:49

There's a big chunk of that population that doesn't have a voice. Literally does not have a voice, cannot speak.And I think that we've just given up. Meaning like, ugh, well, what are they going to say? What, you know, why should they be included?  I worked on a program that was actually designed for, it was a tool for autism on an iPad where a student could make a choice. And so I was like, let's put all the furniture on this program. And let's hand the iPad— because these kids know how to work on iPad, they might not be able to speak, but they know how to communicate on an iPad. So there was no questions, but we would walk them through it. And there would be two examples of seating, two examples of desks, two examples of rugs, two examples of color, two examples of flooring. And we'd have the students pick. And it was interesting because we got to 70, 80% preferred one solution versus the other. So I was like, let's do it.  We actually showed it to the kids. And they got in and it was like they knew the place. It was like they went and they jumped in those squishy chairs. And they sat right down. They felt like they helped design the space. And could any of them tell me that? No. But the looks on their face and how they were interacting and the joy that we could see in them and how excited they were to be there? That came through. They communicated it that way.


Kaelynn Reid  29:19

What AJ did is offer a dynamic, open ended conversation, which allows disabled people to be co-designers in the process from the very beginning, not the end. 


AJ Paron  29:29

We're just on the start of this frontier, of designing for neurodiversity. I mean there's, there's so much more information and after doing it for over 20 years, you know, when my son got diagnosed at age three, it was one out of 10,000 kids were diagnosed with autism spectrum disorders, and now it's one out of 44. It's imperative that we continue to learn about these disorders and what the barriers are in the built environment and that's what our job is in architecture and design, is to take away those barriers. We can't fix all the problems that are out there. But at least if we can take away the barriers and create more inclusive environments, there's so much good that comes out of that.


Kaelynn Reid  30:18

Going beyond access involves allowing disabled people to make changes to the design. It also means that we as designers need to take a big step back from our egos and viewing ourselves as the expert in this field. We need to wrestle with who has the power here, who makes the final decision. Let's hear Joshua's thoughts on this.


Joshua Halstead  30:40

This experience I had at a film festival for disability communities here in San Francisco. And they're we're trying to make the cinema experience very accessible, as accessible as possible. So they had captions, they had the visual descriptions of what was happening, they had the video happening at the same time. And what happened, which was in some way unforeseen by folks, is that there was so much access that actually it forced a group of folks who are neurodiverse into another place to watch the movies with pared-down access, because it was overstimulating, it was too much. So I'm just give it as a concrete example of the idea of universal access, like we've made it for everyone, isn't it supposed to be perfect? Well, it's no, it doesn't work for some people, and it causes separation. So I use that example, to draw out the point that in access making, there will always be tensions, there will always be friction, there will always be conflicts in the question of what do we do? What should we do? Is another question that's never said. And that's, can you take the power away from me, because I don't want it anymore. And as a design community, or anyone who's doing access, I think, importantly, needs to be very deliberate and intentional with how decisions are going to be made and how decisions are going to be made in perpetuity. Because I want to think about access as a series of trade offs, rather than this mission or journey toward the universal. Because if there are going to be conflicts, we're going to have to say yes or no, we're going to be making decisions. And we need to think carefully about how we think about power, in order to reckon with the default of having power, as designers, as people who are creating things. We need to not be allergic to power, because it's already there. So we need to grapple with it.


Kaelynn Reid  32:34

As a designer, by default, you have the power to inform space, and its ability to support belonging. A weighty responsibility, no doubt. But again, we aren't striving for perfection here. You are going to inevitably make a space that is inaccessible to someone, because the hard truth is that you will open doors for some and close them on others. There are guidelines in the ADA that are in direct conflict with one another. 


Joshua Halstead  32:59

So I think what the call to notice power, is first and foremost about is to say, yes, the project of access is going to be subjective. I know that we keep looking for an objective. And when we liked this idea of a standard as taking the power away, well, the ADA or WCAG said that we should interpret images this way. But actually, there are many different ways of interpreting an image, translating something visual into text, and I love the project Poetic Alt Texts, because it highlights the subjectivity of access.  And the restaurant which we spoke about, I'm sure that they came up with all of these questions, and they made decisions. How are people going to get into the restaurant? How are they going to be interfacing with the staff? How do we want to represent our menu? And what is that whole experience? So it's just to realize that there is always, when you create something, there's typically a point at which you say yes, or you say no. That binary exists, and you can keep that kind of question open. But to make something to form something, there's always this kind of point at which yes or no, exists.  Whenever you answer that yes or no in one way or the other, you include and exclude people. And that's not just to instill fear in people, or to consciousness or kind of a call for criticality. But it is also a return to the beauty and the subjectivity and the creativity of access. If we can recognize that access is always a subjective operation, that means that we can bring our whole selves, human selves, creative selves, awesome, beautiful, wonderful selves into the process of making access. And be poetic, and be rich, and imagine the world or maybe create many worlds that are richer and deeper and more textured than the ones that exist today.


Kaelynn Reid  35:07

Standards are not infallible. There are in fact many ways to go about interpreting them, and many ways that can translate to space when you're specifically speaking about universal design guidelines. But that's not to say that the standards and the spirit in which they come from is bad or shouldn't be respected. Making access and creating inclusion involves co-creation and conflict. Both of those ask us to move away from simply relying on standards to do the creative work, the very human work for us. But that's why we invite you to design beyond the guidelines, or beyond access, which does of course include them, to pursue equitable experiences of delight for as many bodies as you can think of. Thanks so much to Matt, Joshua and AJ, for the incredible conversations. To get your copy of Joshua's book that we took much of our inspiration from, please check out our show notes. This podcast is brought to you by Kimball International. Thanks for listening


Kaelynn Reid


A metro-Detroiter and former interior designer turned brand ambassador, Kaelynn is inspired by the forward thinking concepts found in the margins of our design community.