Rehabilitation Professor Lends Expertise to Architectural Design Field
Brent Williams has spent the past eight years training rehabilitation counselors, and he believes his work this year hits people where they live.
Williams co-authored a book – and now a chapter in a seminal work for the field of universal design – aimed at ensuring people with disabilities have accessible housing.
"We offer people with disabilities job training, health care and other rehabilitative services, but if they can't move about freely in their environment, none of these things matter," said Williams, a University of Arkansas associate professor of rehabilitation education. "That part hit home to me."
Designing buildings so that they can be used by people of all abilities is not only the right thing to do for people with disabilities, it's an economically sound practice, he said.
Williams, who is on the faculty of the College of Education and Health Professions, and two colleagues in the university's Fay Jones School of Architecture teamed up to write a book published last spring about design for people with disabilities. That book led to the trio being asked to contribute a chapter to the second edition of the Universal Design Handbook published in October by McGraw-Hill.
Architecture students around the nation will learn about the person-to-environment model developed by Williams, Korydon Smith, associate professor of architecture, and Jennifer Webb, associate professor of interior design.
"The Universal Design Handbook is ubiquitous," Williams said. "It's a text and reference guide widely used in architecture, interior design and other design programs. The field of medicine has Grey's Anatomy, the field of literature has Norton's Anthology, and architecture has the Universal Design Handbook."
The book written by Williams, Smith and Webb that was published by the University of Arkansas Press is Just Below the Line: Disability, Housing and Equity in the South.
"I have a disability and I'm very conscious of what often limits me," said Williams, who has a genetic condition called retinitis pigmentosa that limits his vision. "Sometimes, I face environmental barriers that limit where I can go and what I want to do. These barriers are not personal or cultural, they are architectural."
The first edition of the Handbook was published in 2001, a little more than a decade after the Americans with Disabilities Act was made law in 1990.
"The ADA mandated that buildings must have more than stairs," said Williams, who has been working in the rehabilitation field since 1994. He joined the University of Arkansas faculty in 2002. "Acknowledging and enforcing people with disabilities' right to use the built environment facilitated the evolution of the concept of universal design. Ideas of design had to be reprocessed, rethought. Some worked and some did not."
The chapter written by the Arkansas faculty asks the reader to rethink the notion of disability as a binary concept, Williams said.
"Having a disability is not necessarily a black/white or either/or issue," he said. "We look at it as a continuum. We propose that architects and designers plan for the widest possible realm of human function and then design for that."
Some parts of the environment can't be changed, Williams acknowledged, and the person-to-environment model makes the intersection of the two as functional as possible.
"According to some earlier notions, people don't have disabilities, environments do," he said. "It's difficult to get around the reality that people do have functional differences so the designer needs to look at all the pieces of the puzzle and how they fit. Our concept is to get the largest variety of human functions into the most environments as possible."
Most features of inaccessible housing have nothing to do with cost or design but are continued as tradition, according to Williams. Designing a house with 36-inch-wide doors, wide enough to accommodate a wheelchair, does not necessarily cost more or involve more work.
"Buying and installing six 36-inch doors can actually cost less than buying six doors of different sizes and installation would be the same for either," Williams said. "Some people object to changes that break from tradition simply because they believe the features will 'look funny.' I'd argue the differences may look funny for the first three days, but that would soon be forgotten once you realize you're getting around your house a lot more efficiently."
He gave another example of a design flaw – monochromatic stairways – that has created challenges for him and other people with low vision. The problem could be remedied without a lot of expense by adding color to differentiate the risers or incorporating color gradients into the design in the first place. This is an issue for older adults typically considered as able-bodied, he said.
The generation of baby boomers now reaching retirement age won't go quietly to nursing homes as their needs change, Williams said. He predicted the baby boomers would demand housing that accommodates their changing circumstances, and he described the city of Tucson, where the term "visitability" was integrated into city housing codes requiring new built residences to be constructed so that someone in a wheelchair could visit.
"Tucson survived the housing downturn better than other areas because of accessibility," Williams said. "It didn't cost more to build the 'visitable' houses because they were designed on paper that way."
Williams also compared the promotion of universal design to convincing people of the increased safety that comes with wearing seat belts in a vehicle.
"I can spend my career trying to pass laws to enforce this or I can educate people so that enforcement is not an issue," he said. "We can hire more police officers to enforce seat belt laws or we can educate people about safety. I think education is the best way to go.""Ultimately, this chapter may very well reach a larger audience than our book," Williams said of the Universal Design Handbook. "Nineteen and 20-year-olds who will eventually build buildings will read it, and this will have a greater impact."