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Can a Building Cure a Disability?

A few years ago, a basal cell carcinoma amassed on my cheek – skin cancer. It’s a fairly common occurrence for humans, especially ones who skimp on sun protection and spend time playing in the Rocky Mountains. After I had it removed, the surgeon remarked in a tongue-in-cheek tone, “We just cured cancer.” This comment struck me because it was both true and in conflict with the predominantly accepted rhetoric that there is no “cure” for cancer. My surgeon thought successful removal and clean margins were sufficient for a cure, while others may define “cure” differently. This is where semantics can illuminate our normalized perception of illness and health.

The same idea can be applied to how we approach constructing buildings. When is a building healthy or cancerous? There is a common perception that someone who moves about the world with the assistance of a chair or walker has a “disability.” This conclusion is likely drawn from the Medical Model of Disability, which emphasizes the individual physical capabilities of the body. In contrast, the Social Model of Disability recognizes that one’s ability to move about the social, material world is determined by how that world has been constructed – usually to the advantage of people who move in a certain way. When a building doesn’t have ramps or elevators, this excludes the movement styles of a large variety of people. If we realize that the “disability” is more about the structure of the building than it is about the person seeking access to the building, then installing an elevator, ramp, and other accessible features cures the disability in a real and meaningful way. The person doesn’t have to move any differently, but the building allows for a wider range of movement styles – thus reducing, or even eliminating certain “disabilities.”

Similarly, different people have various ways they move about a kitchen. Though there are some common, universal design principles concerning proximity of fridge to sink to range (a.k.a. The Work Triangle), there are many interesting variations based on the way a skilled cook or a beginner baker likes to work. An intentional layout based on how the user lives in and utilizes their space is important. Thoughtful and inclusive design becomes so much more essential when we are considering public and communal spaces. These considerations contributed to the development of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) standards of construction, which have been evolving since 1990. I propose we start to speak of these standards less in terms of the people who have been impacted, and more in terms of buildings and structural features being conducive to a variety of movements and sensory exchange (think signage, lighting, and pathfinding). What if we start to think in terms like the Buildings Which Cause Disabilities Act?

Yes, radical though it may seem, a building can in fact cure a disability. So, as we contemplate the environments we move through, in, and around, let us seek out ways to cure disabilities with our built spaces. Let us seek to include people with all kinds of varying access needs. What do our shared spaces look like when there is room for everyone?

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