How The Disabilities Act Has Influenced Architecture

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Robert Siegel talks to professor Monica Ponce de Leon, dean of the School of Architecture and Urban Planning at the University of Michigan, about changes in architecture and design 20 years after the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act.


For another view on how the ADA has influenced American architecture, we called on Monica Ponce de Leon. She's dean of the College of Architecture and Urban Planning at the University of Michigan, and she's a proponent of something called universal design, which challenges the notion of able versus disabled.

Instead, Ponce de Leon says universal design encourages architects to think about a wide range of people.

MONICA PONCE DE LEON: What is powerful about this is that it acknowledges different stages in life so that we can acknowledge kids, middle age and then later in life, as well as people that have different kinds of disabilities.

SIEGEL: So what's an example of that sort of design?

PONCE DE LEON: So I have a private practice, and we designed a library for Rhode Island School of Design about now six years ago. And in the project, we designed with universal design principles.

So for example, when we designed the cubicles for the library, no two cubicles are actually the same. We used software that allows you to design for variation as a way of creating a whole range of cubicles that had different sizes, differing height tables, different height seating, different widths, so that we could accommodate many different body types in a very subtle way.

SIEGEL: So depending on one's individual needs, one's individual size, or for example if one used a wheelchair, you could find a space that would work for you in that.

PONCE DE LEON: Exactly. You're actually acknowledging that we all have different degrees of abilities. So at RISD, since you have a student body that is there for four or five years at a time, there was a great possibility that a student may find actually their favorite spot, maybe because their legs are longer than the average or maybe because their height is a little shorter. And it enabled us to embed different ranges of abilities within the design of the space.

SIEGEL: You're describing an approach to design that would render obsolete that little wheelchair symbol that we see all over American life.

PONCE DE LEON: That would be for me, in the long term, the goal, that we no longer think, again, of the wheelchair sign as the one that is imperative. But if we embed the notion of designing for the many within everyday design, the same way that we're discussing sustainability today, where we're thinking every building should be sustainable, then you're right.

I suppose that the consequence would be that eventually we wouldn't have to have the wheelchair sign as the special accommodation or as the sort of the checkbox that you have to check in when you're designing a building.

SIEGEL: In architecture courses, say when people do projects and learn how to design buildings, do you find that the needs for access have been internalized, that it's part of the way people approach the original task, or is it the overlay? Is it the thing that, oops, let's go back and check to make sure that we also met the law in these regards?

PONCE DE LEON: It's unfortunately the overlay. In academia, design for the disabled has been thought of as the requirement that we need to fulfill in order to get accreditation as a school. But I think the newer generations of students are coming into the profession with a very fresh thinking, and they are thirsty for design to be relevant at all levels.

So our students are actually much more interested than their faculty in having design for the many embedded within every aspect of their projects. So we see actually our students asking the questions and our faculty then having to catch up and then learn to answer them.

SIEGEL: Professor Monica Ponce de Leon, thank you very much for talking with us.

PONCE DE LEON: Thank you.

SIEGEL: Professor Ponce de Leon is dean of the College of Architecture and Urban Planning at the University of Michigan.

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