Think of a Table: Imagining Inclusivity in Design

From our Ideas+Buildings Blog

Think of a table. Not a specific table, just a generic one.

Did an image pop into your head?

Chances are you thought of a simple square or round table, probably wood, with a leg in each corner or one in the middle. Part of our being human is the ability to create generic images that capture the essence of “table” from an infinite variety of specific table designs.

Now think of a handicapped person.

Are you imagining an individual in a wheelchair?

If so, it’s not surprising. Most Americans think of disabled people as being in wheelchairs. After all, the iconic symbol used to identify accessible entrances, parking spaces, and toilets shows a simple representation of a person in a wheelchair. For most of us, Disabled = Wheelchair, and consciously or not, we think of people in wheelchairs when we design accessible spaces.

But that equation is wrong.

Based on 2010 U.S. Census statistics, of Americans aged 15 years and older, 51.4 million people have one or more types of disability (in broad terms that represents 20% of that population). Let’s focus on those disabilities that require physical accommodations and directly affect our designs. These include sight impairments (8.1 million people), hearing impairments (7.6 million, one author included), grasping difficulties (6.7 million), and walking difficulties (30.6 million). The last category includes 15.2 million people that use canes, crutches, walkers, or wheelchairs. Of that group, 3.6 million use wheelchairs. In other words, only a small percentage of the people who need accessibly designed spaces are in wheelchairs.

True, certain provisions of the 2010 ADA Standards for Accessible Design (ADASAD) are specifically intended to help people in wheelchairs to maneuver. But ADASAD-required handrails, ramps, elevators, ambulatory toilet stalls, sloped walkways, assisted hearing devices, handles that don’t require grasping or twisting, signage with raised lettering and Braille, and visible and audible fire alarms give many disabled people not in wheelchairs accommodations equivalent to those of able-bodied people.

And what of the 190 million Americans aged 15 years and older who are not considered disabled in any way? They get around fine and don’t need accessible design. You may even be one of them.

Or do they?

Consider this: Most people  become at least temporarily disabled at some point in their lives. High school football injuries, skiing mishaps, slips and falls, or auto accidents can happen to almost anyone at any age. And most people do grow old (whether they admit it or not). Many patients in rehabilitation facilities, such as the recently opened Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital in Boston, are recovering from some trauma, such as a stroke or an accident, and will regain most or all of their former abilities following their treatments. Census statistics back this up: of the 15.2 million people using canes, crutches, walkers, or wheelchairs, only 9.4 million, or 62%, are using them for six months or longer.

In that sense, all of us who may now be free of any disabilities can at best be considered 'temporarily able-bodied.' While our mental image of a handicapped person may be of someone who permanently relies on a wheelchair, the truth is that each of us may be that person someday. We don’t know when accessible design will help us, but at some point in our lives, it probably will.

That’s the attitude we should take when we design. Rather than reluctantly complying with codes and standards, or charitably giving “those disabled people” a break, let’s take the selfish approach: we’re designing accessible spaces for ourselves. Someday we may thank ourselves.

*Those of you doing the math may have noticed that 8.1m + 7.6m + 6.7m + 30.6m = 53 million disabled people requiring physical accommodations, more than the total 51.2 million people with all types of disabilities. The reason is that many people have more than one disability. Census stats don’t tell us how many people, for example, have mobility and hearing disabilities.

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