Accessibility: Breaking Down the Final Barriers

We often think of accessibility issues related to physical barriers in the built environment. But what about sensory obstacles?

Reflect for a moment on your routine trips to the grocery store. Do you smell the onions among the produce? Are you shivering in the freezer section? Can you feel the anxiety of those long lines at the register? For neuro-typical individuals, these are mild stressors but an essential part of our weekly routines. Now imagine that onion with ten times the odor, the freezer section like icicles stabbing your arms, and anxiety levels from long lines that become too overwhelming to finish checking out.

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Bright lights and dark shadows, food smells, and crowded aisles are all land mines for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities. Photograph copyright Jake Leonard via UnSplash

This is how some people with Intellectual Developmental Disabilities (IDD) experience grocery stores. Margaret Walsh, a clinical director at the May Institute, a non-profit and leader in applied behavioral analysis that serves individuals with IDD, recommends coping mechanisms tailored to each individual: Headphones to block out noise, a crossword to reduce anxiety while waiting, and other helpful tools. But what if the responsibility shifted from the individual to the environment? What if we, as designers, looked at molding the grocery store to serve all individuals, instead of forcing some to deal with its stressors as is? Our 2020 Perkins Eastman Health and Wellness Fellow, Julia Wilson, is asking these questions.

Discovering Barriers

Perkins Eastman Fellow Julia Wilson conducted fieldwork, literature reviews, and surveys among both IDD and
neuro-typical grocery patrons. She also took measurements of lighting, temperature, and noise inside the stores.
She and the Perkins Eastman team synthesized their findings into key areas of indoor environmental quality: Acoustics, Lighting, HVAC, People, and Wayfinding. The resulting white paper presents recommendations on how public venues such as grocery store can be more accommodating to people with IDD.

Julia’s research, culminating in a new white paper called “Discovering Barriers,” explores how we can make essential spaces like the grocery store more accessible. Conveyed in both graphic and text format for accessibility, her findings create a roadmap to analyzing our public spaces for IDD accessibility, and recommend changes that can improve the independence of those with IDD.

Accessibility: Breaking Down the Final Barriers

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Of the three types of grocery stores Julia investigated, patrons reported that noise was the most stressful factor everywhere, from announcements over the loudspeaker to mechanical noises and patron conversation. Other problems included inconsistent lighting with little transition from the dimmest sections (like produce) to more overly lit sections; odors from food, people, and cleaning supplies; and general congestion that would be even worse if measurements were taken outside of the current COVID density restrictions.

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These findings hit close to home for some of our PEople. Principal Alan Schlossberg, whose 21-year-old daughter, Anna, was born with Down Syndrome, followed Julia’s research closely. In a foreword to Julia’s white paper, he offers advice both professional and personal, in the hopes of creating a more inclusive future for his daughter:

“I’m encouraged to see Julia’s work influence and expand our view of this important population and community. By assessing their particular characteristics, Julia shows how intended and unintended design choices have impact on the behavior and experience for adults with IDD. In time, and with continued research, Julia’s work today might lead to a change in my daughter Anna’s experience at the grocery store, bank, train station, or movie theatre. Moreover, Julia presents a compelling question: Is good design for individuals with disabilities also, simply, good design for everyone?”

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We’re already seeing how premier and sustainable lighting, HVAC, acoustics, and more, translates to healthier students and staff in our K-12 Education practice. At the Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. School in Cambridge, MA, and the Dunbar Senior High School in Washington, DC, improvements in indoor environmental quality correlated to advancements in learning. “These healthy, high-performance learning environments are suffused with natural light, they have wonderful acoustics, they have great indoor air quality, they’re comfortable, and they really foster opportunities to engage in education and support the learning process,” K-12 practice leader and Principal Sean O’Donnell said in an Insights article discussing those results. Julia’s work is the first step toward identifying how design within the broader public realm can uplift everyone’s experience in their day-to-day interactions.

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The table above compares the principles of different design practices, color-coded to show where they overlap and where they need improvement. The goal is to shape universal design so it’s truly universal, encompassing all the principles of these practices. For example, making spaces accessible for people with autism requires sensory zoning and spatial sequencing. In universal design, the principle requires simple, intuitive, and perceptible information. The key is to balance all of these needs to achieve accessibility across every category.

Perkins Eastman’s fellowship continues to foster essential ideas like Julia’s, with an eye for a future of design that is more equitable, sustainable, and achievable. We invite you to read our full report, now live on the website.