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Beautifully Accessible: Are accessibility and aesthetics in competition with one another?

Last updated on April 30, 2020

We live in an aesthetic world. In the age of Instagram, we place more and more value on what is “aesthetically pleasing”. Our “aesthetic” has become a key factor in expressing, branding, and even identifying  ourselves, and it creeps its way into every aspect of our lives: our Instagram feeds, our clothes, our homes, and public spaces. Our university itself has an aesthetic. Does SJU’s historical, stone, Hogwarts-esque charm compromise the campus’ accessibility? Is this the very reason we’ve found our campus to be inaccessible?

In class this semester, we were inspired by a conversation about what seems like a battle between accessibility and aesthetics. We realized that while universal design – designing for everyone, in the simplest form that is based solely on function – is a great idea in theory, we just weren’t sure that society would be willing to part with our precious aesthetics to allow for it.  We wondered whether that was the case: Would we ultimately have to choose between aesthetics and accessibility? Is that why our world is inaccessible? Or can you have both – and if so, how does that work? Is accessibility an aesthetic in itself? 

We knew if there was an answer to these questions anywhere, it was, of course, on Instagram. We scoured Instagram for people who identify as accessible or universal designers. In our quest, we discovered Maegan Blau, owner of Arizona-based interior design firm, Blue Copper Design

A photo of Maegan Blau
Photo: @bluecopperdesign on Instagram

Maegan is a wheelchair user and always had a passion and inclination for interior design. Her own journey in a wheelchair inspired her to follow her dream of becoming her own boss and working from the comfort of her home, which she accessibly-designed herself. She wanted to empower others who live with disabilities through accessible design. According to Blue Copper Design’s bio, it is a firm specializing in “adaptive design and universal design” and creates “custom designs for custom lives”. We noted that her Instagram feed, full of accessible design, was indeed aesthetically pleasing, and we knew she was the person to give us our answer. 

A screenshot of Blue Copper Design's Instagram feed
Photo: @bluecopperdesign on Instagram

UNIVERSAL DESIGN VS. ACCESSIBLE DESIGN

We recognize that there is a distinction between universal design and accessible design, the latter being more of our interview subject’s expertise, since she focuses primarily on customizing individuals’ personal living  spaces. She has, however, collaborated on universal design projects of public spaces. While she says these projects are more difficult than her custom ones, to her, universal design and accessible design are one in the same. Universal design begins with accessible design principles.  

So that we’re on the same page, let’s talk about the technical difference between the two. The main topic that we’ve talked a lot about during this course is universal design. Before this course, we had never heard the term. Accessible design was the only word used to describe this niche. The one unique thing about universal design is that it is not just meant to help people with specific disabilities; it can help everyone: children, the elderly, and the population overall. We learned from Garland-Thomson that we need to start “changing the shape of our world, not changing the shape of our bodies.” Universal design is often compared to accessibility. But, as we learned from Hamrai, universal design is a design that targets a larger audience, while accessibility is more about focusing on an individual and their needs. 

There are specific requirements guiding the industry of universal design, known as the  7 Principles of Universal Design. These principles were created in 1997 by a group of designers, engineers, and researchers in order to provide guidelines on how to design everyday products, environments, and means of communication. 

Using these principles, we can maximize the amount of people that can use certain products or be in certain environments by designing spaces and technology universally.

DOES ACCESSIBILITY TAKE AWAY FROM A BUILDING’S AESTHETIC? 

As we learned from Maegan, implementing more accessibility does not have to take away from the overall aesthetic of a building and campus.

 “To preserve that historical charm, while updating things to be universal and accessible is definitely going to be a challenge, but I don’t think that it is impossible.” She also mentions that the key is “working towards better, as opposed to perfect.” 

With that growth mindset, we on campus can see how, while it may be difficult to work backwards, in a sense – that is, implementing universal design to already existing structures and buildings – it is possible. We can also see how it’s all about taking baby steps and continuously working towards the goal of creating a universally designed campus. 

Here are three simple solutions we came up with to implement universal design onto our campus without drastically changing aesthetic elements. 

  1. Professors can transition to digital media as opposed to paper copies. This way, students can increase font size or use the accessible features online. 
  2. Implementing rolling tables and chairs, in place of the standard desks. This way, classrooms can be versatile and accommodate all body types. 
  3. Changes to the paths around campus. Create wider, consistent, and smoothly paved pathways. 

Starting off with some basics like these, we can slowly but surely create a campus that is universally designed – and still beautiful –  for all!

IS ACCESSIBILITY AN AESTHETIC? 

One solution we came up with in our class discussion was that perhaps accessibility is its own aesthetic. After all, clean and simple is a pretty popular modern aesthetic.

However, Maegan believes accessible design doesn’t have to be basic and simple. “It’s so easy to make things pretty, so you might as well”, she said. Accessible design can be applied to anyone’s aesthetic, and doesn’t have to fit into just one box.

You don’t even have to be able to tell that design is accessible. Maegan told us, “It was difficult for me working with his {my contractor for my first home} subcontractors because they didn’t really understand what I was trying to say. I kept having to say ‘I don’t want it to be so obvious that somebody in a wheelchair lives here’”.

A white kitchen island featuring a gray print, with wooden barstools, a sink, and a plant.
Photo: @bluecopperdeisgn on Instagram

SO, CAN WE HAVE BOTH?

Maegan believes that you are undoubtedly able to have both aesthetics and accessibility.  “Absolutely, you can have both. I do not think that there has to be a sacrifice one way or the other. That is really where my niche has been in my business and where my passion lies,” she told us.   

She also told us that many times, when we think about accessibility, it makes us think about a hospital. We only think about accessibility in terms of functionality being the only requirement, but that’s not the reality. It just takes creativity to take functionality a step further and make it beautiful. 

While Maegan emphasized the importance for people who are in compromised communities to feel comfortable and have a usable home, the most important thing is for them to have a space that feels like them, not just their disability. 

“There is so much wrapped up in someone’s disability with their identity. Whether it was from an accident or someone was born at birth with their disability. The world kind of sees them as their disability, but they are their own person”, said Maegan. 

Just because someone has a disability does not make them any different from the rest of us. They have their own identity, their own style, and yes, their own aesthetic. It is just important to incorporate the person’s identity as it is functionality. 

Hats arranged on hooks on a wall with a lviing room in the distant background.
Photo: @blucopperdesign on Instagram

Implementing Accessibility into Our Beautiful Campus 

Many people can agree that Saint Joe’s is an aesthetically pleasing school, and many people chose to attend Saint Joe’s because of that. During our time in Digital Storytelling, we have come to realize that while beautiful, Saint Joe’s is not the most accessible school. So will Saint Joe’s be able to maintain its status as an aesthetically charming school while becoming more accessible? The answer is YES! 

Maegan used the example of her experience helping to design a universal gym that caters to people who have disabilities. One issue she struggled with was designing not just for one disability, but all different kinds. A demographic she specifically designed for that was new to her was people who have hearing impairment. She said it’s all about thinking through every detail and imagining every kind of person that could come into the space. 

A photo of the pool in the universal gym Maegan is a part of designing, taken through a window.
Progress on the pool at Ability360, the universal gym Maegan is helping to design.
Photo: @bluecopperdesign on Instagram

 

An accessible rock-climbing wall
Ability360 includes an accessible rock wall.
Photo: @bluecopperdesign on Instagram

At Saint Joe’s, we, too, would run into this issue because we would have to design for all different kinds of abilities and bodies. But, this doesn’t mean that we can’t have a school which is both aesthetically pleasing and accessible. 

We need to work on preserving what Saint Joe’s has while making it more accessible. It may not be easy, since Saint Joe’s is such an old campus, but the university has to be creative. As Maegan said, things don’t need to be perfect, but if they are at least better than before, that is something. Gradual improvements are a step in the right direction, but those steps need to be continuous and constantly thought about and expanded upon to reach the desired accessible status. There are easy ways for our campus to be both accessible and aesthetically pleasing, but they cannot be both if we do not try to make the campus more comfortable for everyone.

To hear more about Meagan Blau’s story and some of her projects, listen to her full interview below and follow her on Instagram @bluecopperdesign. 

-Margaret Blanco ’21, Alysa Bainbridge ’21, Annie Mackert ’21

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