Specialization and Service
When I moved to Seattle after my first job, I thought I just wanted to be an architect—an average architect. Then a very kind architect told me, “there are a lot of good architects—focus on the unique perspective you can bring to the profession. That might be disability.”
I didn’t see the value in that, but as I started working at a large firm, I was going to my friends’ work desks and thinking, “Oh, that design is not a good idea.” I began to realize that if I was going to make those comments, I needed to know what I was talking about. I started taking some classes, and I discovered I really loved to help people make their projects more accessible.
I had the opportunity to start a firm twenty years ago, and I decided that one of our services would be accessibility support. When my partner retired from the firm, we stopped doing traditional architectural services altogether and decided to only do accessibility consulting.
My involvement with the code development process in Washington state, along with my participation as a member of the US Access Board, helps me understand the intent behind the codes and standards. I think of myself as a cultural ambassador; I help architects understand not only the letter of the law but why it’s beneficial for somebody who uses a mobility device or doesn’t have full vision or hearing. Having eighteen inches clear on the pull side of a door, for instance. Why eighteen inches? Why not twenty or fourteen? Explaining about how a wheelchair user approaches at an angle and needs enough room for their footrest outside of the door swing gives designers the knowledge that allows them to use their design skills to make good decisions.
People ask to see pictures of my accessibility work all the time, but my work is meant to go unseen. Most of my input is in tweaking a design and supporting the architect’s original vision. About sixty-five percent of our work is multifamily housing, and that is because that project type has complex accessibility regulations with a lot of overlapping language. In the last year, we’ve been asked to work on more projects where we look at existing buildings and remove barriers to review compliance. Really, what we’re trying to do is make good design decisions and support a full range of humans who want to use and feel welcome in our buildings. If you don’t understand how people interact with the building, it’s hard to get the design right.
In my tenure on the Access Board, there have been several other licensed architects, including Michael Graves, prior to his passing. There are other people who provide accessibility consulting services but have different backgrounds; there are people who represent disability organizations; there are many, many others.
Experiences in education and early career
Except for too-high desks, I never really dealt with any challenges from being a wheelchair user in architectural school at the University of Houston. The first day of studio, a bunch of my classmates looked at me and looked at the desk, which was at stool height, and decided that wasn’t going to work. They went out and bought a bunch of two-by-fours and built me a lower desk. I had very supportive classmates.
The next big hurdle was trying to get a job. The difficulty with trying to get employment when you’re a wheelchair user, especially in the ’80s, before the Americans with Disabilities Act, is that people did not expect that a wheelchair user could even do the job. They imagine an architect must to be able to climb a ladder and wield the hammer on a job site, and that was certainly not a good fit for me. If I went in for an interview and the interviewer’s jaw hit the floor, I would say thanks and leave and try again at another firm. At that time, you had to look for the right open-minded employer; now the laws are different. I think it would be easier to show your skills first, rather than deal with misconceptions up front. I have both felt marginalized and have benefited from my unique perspective. I didn't have the same job opportunities as my peers, but I turned my worldview into a service I could provide for other architects.
Pressing Issues in Design
Equal and substantial access to our environment by people with disabilities is a pressing issue in design—then and now. To young people with disabilities, I say: be an architect. Become a accessibility consultant. Architecture is one of the few careers where you can influence the built environment for the better and shape what you understand about people’s needs. If you see a gap in what is being provided, you have a chance to fill that with your ideas and solutions. You have the the opportunity to impact your community.
I am increasingly aware of the lack of inclusion and equal access in education, the workforce, and access to technology and housing. Up until November of last year, I would have said we were moving forward in all sorts of areas, though there’s certainly more work to do. There’s a lot of focus on accessibility for technology, communication technology, and how the rapid advancement of technology is continuing to support and engage people with disabilities. Since the administration changed, all bets are off. We don’t know what is going to happen. Now we might be in a pause period—where we’re trying to just maintain the rights that we have. And in architecture, people with disabilities are in a minority that is often overlooked when people talk about diversifying the profession.
Karen L. Braitmayer, FAIA, is the founder of her own accessible design consulting company in Seattle, Washington. In her position as an accessibility expert, she advises architectural firms, developers, and government agencies at the local and state level on how to implement and improve building code and accessibility for all users. Karen also served as chair of the federal Access Board, where she is currently a public member.