For architect Ileana Rodriguez, universal design is personal. At age 13, Rodriguez was diagnosed with a spinal malformation that left her paralyzed from the waist down. After setting a 2008 U.S. Paralympic record in the 200m breaststroke and representing Team USA in the 2012 London Paralympic Games, Rodriguez finished her master’s degree in architecture and founded I Design Access, LLC, a design and accessibility consultancy. On Thursday April 18, she will deliver the keynote address at the Absolutely Accessible Kent Technical Workshop and Luncheon sponsored by Disability Advocates of Kent County (DAKC). The event, which is open to the public, will launch DAKC’s Absolutely Accessible Kent Campaign.
“She is a very inspiring speaker, someone who combines both sides,” says Cameron Young, DAKC board member. “She has experienced accessibility challenges in her own life and also has experience as an architect.”
Young, who works as a senior communications specialist for Steelcase, became a quadriplegic after a diving accident. He now advocates for universal design and spaces that are accessible to everyone. Universal design can be applied to buildings, products, or environments to make them accessible to all people, no matter their age, ability, or other challenges.
“Every community has barriers to getting everyone out and about and involved. We try to break down those barriers, to make sure that every member of the community has the same ability and access to live their best lives,” he says, “This workshop will highlight universal design, going beyond the ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act), which is a good standard but does not go far enough.”
From his own experience, Young notes that Kent County problem areas for people with disabilities include parking, challenging entrances to buildings, and difficult access to restrooms. Other roadblocks to living everyday life include narrow aisles in stores, sidewalks blocked by al fresco dining, and environments that make it difficult for those with vision or hearing impairments to feel included. That’s why Young has spent the past nine years on the DAKC board working to develop the Absolutely Accessible Kent Campaign.
“This workshop is one more way to tackle our mission, which is to make Kent County accessible for everyone,” he says. “20 percent of our community has some sort of disability that needs universal design. Universal design can really help everyone. As the community ages, universal design addresses things that might help everyone down the road. Instead of eventually having to move to a facility, why not build homes so you can age in place?”
During the morning workshop, Rodriguez will focus on how all spaces can be designed to be accessed, understood, and used to the greatest extent possible by all people, regardless of age, size, ability, or disability. During lunch, she will share her own story of being a person with a disability, a champion athlete, and a successful architect.
The Absolutely Accessible Kent Campaign is working with Kent County’s design and building professionals to create universally-designed spaces that exceed both ADA and Michigan Construction Code guidelines. In addition to providing educational events, the campaign will produce a comprehensive accessibility guide that will be shared as a national model.
“We think that this event is a unique opportunity to be inspired and to become aware of the power of universal design,” Young says. “We want to get as many people there as possible.”
Written by Estelle Slootmaker, Development News Editor
Photos courtesy Disability Advocates of Kent County.