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Design for Dignity: Studies in Accessibility

The Americans with Disabilities Act goes a long way towards codifying what “accessible” means when describing a public building or facility. However, people often still think that things built to be accessible are ugly, awkward or otherwise non-appealing to non-disabled people. This book outlines many case studies of designing with accesisbility in mind -- both new buildings and retrofitted old buildings -- with the aim of showing that accessible design can be welcoming and highly functional for everyone and as such is a highly desireable thing to keep in mind. Lebovich has a generally positive outlook and even in cases where accessibile building doesn’t work properly, or doesn’t go far enough, he still manages to have good things to say while stressing what needs to be done to fix the problem.

Lebovich discusses both newly built buildings, such as a water fitness facility in Virginia, as well as complicated retrofittings of old buildings such as the Vice Presidential residence and the Smithsonian Castle in Washington D.C. He discusses the particular concern of retrofitting historical buildings and how to decide how much changing of architecturally significant detail is too much. In some cases buildings that could not make their upper floors accessible have offered at least some accomodations to visitors who use wheelchairs such as providing books of photographs of upper levels, or, in the case of the Statue of Liberty, videotaped the trip up for those who could not make it. The Statue of Liberty example is part of a larger discussion of the National Parks Service campaign to increase accessibility in the areas they steward, including making accessible trails, providing restrooms that exceed the letter of the ADA, offering audio alternatives to textual signage and lowering information desks and providing multiple seating options in theater and dining areas.

Lebovich also discusses a few for-profit endeavors such as The Cheesecake Factory in Washington D.C. which includes staff training for working with customers with disabilities as part of their employee development. The Cheesecake Factory is used as an example of ADA-compliance being an iterative process. Instead of just building in the standard accessible restrooms, doorways, and tables, the restaurant went out of its way to ask people to use the space and get back to them with feedback and ways they could improve the restaurant’s usefulness for patrons with differing access requirements. The book comes with many illustrations including both photographs of accessible design as well as architectural drawings of planned buildings and spaces. Many of these pictures show inviting spaces where the accessibility details are only apparent when they’re pointed out, which drives home the point that Lebovich is making.