People with disabilities use lived expertise to make public spaces better

Willa Crolius (left), an accessible design research expert, and Emma DiFrancesco (right), a recent college grad and autistic person, evaluate Dudley Station’s accessibility. Photo by Miranda Suarez/BU News Service

By Miranda Suarez
BU News Service

BOSTON – The Institute for Human-Centered Design’s West End office has no stairs – only ramps. Round white panels hanging from the ceiling absorb sound to reduce echo and make communication easier.

“We have built-in bidets in our toilets. We have automatic faucets and lights,” says Valerie Fletcher, the Institute’s executive director. “We learn all the time, though, about how we can modify things to make them better.”

Their office is part of their mission to promote inclusive design.

Also called universal design or human-centered design, the idea is that buildings and transit systems should go beyond accessibility requirements to serve as many people as possible.

For example, a building designed to meet legal requirements might have stairs out front and an accessible entrance around back.

An inclusively designed building would have one entrance for everyone to use.

Willa Crolius, a designer who works with the Institute, says it’s a question of equality.

“I thought we learned in this country that separate’s not equal,” she says. “Really, we should be trying to get everyone in to use the space, at the same time, in the same way.”

The Institute stresses the importance of inclusive design as the country’s demographics change and more people become disabled.

Emma DiFrancesco stands in Back Bay Station in Boston. She’s using her experience as an autistic person to help make the MBTA more accessible. Photo by Miranda Suarez/BU News Service

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates one in four American adults lives with a disability that impacts major life activities.

The U.S. Census Bureau predicts there will be more people 65 and older than children in the country by 2035 – which means more and more people will acquire disabilities as they age.

The Institute goes through a process called contextual inquiry to test out designs.

They hire people with various disabilities and limitations – anything from physical disabilities to brain injuries to mental illnesses – to explore spaces and give feedback.

For a previous project, these “users/experts” went through museum exhibits to test them for accessibility.

Right now, Crolius is using this process to update the MBTA’s disability design guide for the first time in decades.

On a warm November morning, Crolius stands in South Station and explains her plan to Emma DiFrancesco, that day’s user/expert.

They’re going to start in South Station, make their way to Back Bay on the Commuter Rail, and then hop on the Orange Line to Ruggles. From there, they’re going to take the bus to Dudley Station.

Crolius and a colleague will follow DiFrancesco – a recent college grad, Medford resident, and autistic person – as she navigates the route.

“I don’t always have problems, like, hearing things,” DiFrancesco says. “I have sometimes trouble when there’s a lot of noise and stuff, trying to form my thoughts and have them come out of my mouth.”

Loud sounds can also make her anxious, which isn’t a problem until the Orange Line ride to Ruggles. The loud dings indicating the stops and scratchy announcements make her cringe.

“Oh, the sound travels weirdly in here,” she says. “It’s from the announcement. It’s a little – yikes.”

Crolius constantly asks questions, about her sensory differences as well as factors that would affect any MBTA rider.

She has DiFrancesco rate each location for cleanliness and safety.

She also asks how she gets information about delays during storms – does she check online, or look at signs at the stations?

“Does that exist?” DiFrancesco says, referring to the signs. Crolius laughs.

By the end of the project, Crolius will have traveled the MBTA with about 20 different people. Their experiences transform into data she will use to make accessibility recommendations to the MBTA.

She says not many designers use contextual inquiry because it’s difficult and time-consuming. In her eyes, though, the process is fundamental to making the world an equal place.

“When you’re working that intimately with people, things go wrong,” she says. “You get people who get up on a soapbox and start yelling at you, but that’s OK. It’s their community. They’re living with this thing that you’re designing.”

In fact, she says, designers miss vital issues if they don’t leave the office and talk to people.

“You won’t know even what the big problems are,” she says. “You can’t get that unless you’re doing contextual inquiry.”

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