Among the many falsehoods surrounding accessibility in design is the belief that it applies to only a small subset of people. Any person who has suffered a broken leg or has faced the physical challenges that aging can bring can attest to this fact: Even the extremely mobile should have a personal stake in how open and welcoming our interior environments are to people of all abilities. Nowhere is this more important than in public spaces like hotels, restaurants, and universities—and especially in bathrooms in all of these places—as Xian Horn, an activist for inclusivity, knows well.
Based in New York, Horn, who has cerebral palsy, blogs for Forbes, speaks at leadership conferences, and consults with corporate clients on their offices, all in the name of shifting the culture surrounding disabilities. “There’s a misconception that designing for accessibility mars design, or that it has to stick out like a sore thumb,” says Horn, whose mother’s home was featured in ELLE Decor’s March 2018 issue. “We need to move culture away from the often dry, clinical model of designing or building for disability and recognize that the most beautiful, flawless design is inclusive.”
Here, Horn chats with us about some of her personal experiences with accessible design and what she hopes for its future.
ED: Tell me what universal design means to you.
Xian Horn: It just so happens that I’ve dedicated a year of my life to a project [the “Universal Homes Look Book” with Chubb and the Cerebral Palsy Foundation] around this topic. One of the things we talked about is no matter who you are, your life is going to be touched by disability, whether it’s a friend getting injured or you getting hurt yourself. Anything can happen at any time, and it just makes sense to have things be accessible. My dad fell in his bathroom, which is marble, and broke his hip. And because of that, when he built a new Art Deco house, he made sure to put railings on his showers. Accessibility is a good practice, but it doesn’t have to just look compliant. It can be beautiful and flawless just like any other design.
You went to Wesleyan University. What was your experience like as a student there? Were you living on campus?
Oh, yes. The college newspaper did a feature story on accessibility at Wesleyan my freshman year, because I was pretty much the only person with a physical disability on campus at that time. But kudos to Wesleyan to be willing to make [the effort]. And what I said in that article was, Yes, I can get around this campus because I can do stairs. But if anyone were in a wheelchair, I don’t think it’s possible. Wesleyan is half 19th-century buildings, half modern ones. The modern buildings were pretty accessible, but not the older ones.
What changes did they make? Even something as simple as taking a shower must have been challenging.
Well, this is a little bit off-topic, but one of the things I’ve thought about during this project [with Chubb] is that when I travel, the bathroom is where I find out how well I am going to be living in your space. I know marble is such a beautiful mark of luxury for many hotels, but it usually means it’s going to be extremely dangerous and slippery for me. And not just me.
At Wesleyan, they gave me access to campus security. And they would drive me to and from class. And one funny story is really emblematic. As someone who’s always been told to be careful, I’m just more conscious of my physical environment. One winter day I was leaving class, and as I was taking the ramp down this guy was on his way up spreading salt, staring me dead in the eyes. And I’m starting to get really uncomfortable. When I got to the bottom I was like, I’d better get out of here. And then he said, “You’re the first person today who hasn’t fallen on that.” I couldn’t stop laughing. I believe often you don’t think about accessibility until it’s unsafe or under certain weather conditions.
Did the school do anything for you in your dorm room?
I actually had a double. I had a roommate. We were the only large double, so we were like Grand Central station. But I was always taught that I had to adapt to my environment, so I never expected anyone to make huge changes. And I didn’t make a ton of adjustments. But in the last decade, a lot of us are simply challenged by the physicality of an environment. So if we can alter that environment to fit and mold our lifestyle, then we can do things better. For example, at home I don’t have a modified shower, but I have a really sturdy soap dish that has a holder that’s really strong, so I just hold onto that to get into the tub. And I’m in and out in five minutes, and it’s super easy. I go into other places that are supposed to be accessible, and it often feels like I could be risking my life just to take a shower. Bad design can be dangerous, but good design can be the ultimate empowerment.
What are some of the biggest accessibility challenges you’ve seen in other public spaces?
At speaking events, people don’t necessarily realize that a high chair doesn’t really work well for me. And certain chairs are too low, and I can’t get up out of them. I do remember doing an assessment for a museum, and one of the comments I made was that the seats were way too low and there were way too few of them.
And the biggest thing is the bathroom. At one hotel I needed a friend to help me out of the tub because the tub bar wasn’t strong enough to hold my weight, and I could feel that I was probably going to break it. I think that in general, spaces need to go beyond compliance right now and embrace the sexy, beautiful element of design—like they do for every other kind of design. Think of an Apple product. People don’t just buy it because it’s functional. It’s sleek. There should be just as much swag in accessible design.
But my best suggestion would be to invite people of all different abilities to your space. Let them try it out. Because what works for me may not work for somebody who’s blind. One of my friends who is blind says his biggest complaint is that elevators don’t have universal placement of the buttons. This is one of the reasons it’s so important to communicate with your consumers and to design beyond your own experience.
Can you expand more on going beyond bare utility in design?
Public spaces should be welcoming, and everyone should be able to inhabit them beautifully, not just functionally. Isn’t that the design ideal? Especially when you’re talking about a hotel—customer service and this idea of “luxury” should not be sacrificed for the needs of anyone. I was attending a conference in Orlando, Florida, for employment for people with disabilities. And so I figured it would be no big deal to ask someone from my hotel next door to come with a wheelchair, pick me up, take me to the conference, and then drop me off at night. And the woman says to me, “Well, we only have one wheelchair and it’s for emergencies.” And I was like, There are a thousand-plus people with disabilities here, and you have one wheelchair?
And this luxury hotel is synonymous with service. I’m paying $1,500 for a few days’ stay there, and you can’t get me a wheelchair? Of course, once I threw that legal question in, she said, “Oh, one second.” Suddenly the tone of her voice was warmer. It shouldn’t take that. And I think it’s the same with design. Architects are thinking, OK, we have to slap compliance onto this space so we can move forward. But I think most architects aren’t asking, How can we make this sexy and accessible? Creativity is the hallmark of both living with a disability and design, so asking architects and designers to be creative about inclusive design and not to sacrifice beauty seems like a really natural match.
You mentioned earlier the gap between compliance and actual accessibility—what accounts for that?
The standards are old. Wheelchairs have also changed in size, and when these standards were created, there might not have been motorized wheelchairs, for instance. And compliance in theory is accessible, but when you have to spin a wheelchair, you’re going to need more space than you need to just get in and out. And so this guide [for Chubb] was really about bringing beauty back into this area of design. That’s going to help shift culture in the way we look at disability.
If there’s a design element I would pray for someone to create, it would be items of adjustable height. Maybe you press a button and the thing converts in size, or it lowers. You have kids, you have little people, you have people of all kinds of heights—even basketball players. What a basketball player needs is totally different from what an average person needs. This idea of customization should be built into spaces. I think we’ll get there.
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