One of my earliest memories is of being bundled up and taken to Gracemont, a local retirement home. It was a high-gabled, dark-painted house on a hill. We trundled up its long overgrown drive in our brown second-hand Savannah van. Scary for a 6-year old. My parents shoved single-stem carnations into my closed hand. “Give them out,” they whispered. There were only four of us then, four little boys in our striped shorts overalls with a big red embroidered train on the front.
I wandered through the crowd of old people in wheelchairs and cardigans. Some with eyes closed. Were they dead or just sleeping? Others trembled with Parkinson’s, while some muttered guttural nonsense. I remember my mum’s dress, tiny green-and-cream checks. I remember my father’s bashful smile. We handed those flowers out, stem by stem. Red, salmon, white carnations.
As a kid, I didn’t know what was going on. Now, I understand that my my parents wanted us to know how to give presence to people with different physical abilities - older people, people with physical and mental disabilities. We had to learn how to be around others with different experiences and abilities. We needed to value the lives of others with experiences different to our own. When the day came, and my own grandfather (contorted by Alzheimers and only a twisted shadow of himself) had to go to a care home, it wasn’t something new or scary. We sat by his chair, inhaling the funk of old people, and watching John Wayne reruns (volume turned up ridiculously high) on the small and grainy television.
I was jolted back to Gracemont a few days ago. “If what I’m inspiring you to do is go to the gym and say, you’re not like me, so you don’t have to face these barriers, that’s not the kind of inspiration [I want to provide].” Headphones in, coffee mug full, smug in my warm office, I listened to Becca Bunce's experience as a disability activist on the Guilty Feminist. “What does it inspire you to do? If it inspires you to go out and campaign to stop personal independence payment cuts to people, if it inspires you to make your events easier for disabled people to get involved, if you’re taking down the barriers, great! That’s great inspiration.”
As someone who designs both public and private spaces, I set up conditions for other people’s experiences of place. One aspect of setting up those experiences is physical ability. There are requirements enshrined in law - ADA guidelines, anyone? But, as a designer, it’s my responsibility to go beyond legal requirements to set up experiences that are joyous and surprising and beautiful for people across a spectrum of physical ability.
I love hiking and exploring. I wade through weeds and get my legs all torn up. My calves are still poison ivied from last weekend, when I jumbled through a brambly ditch to peer at some butterfly weed and wild delphinium. I take these experiences for granted (and blush super red trying to explain them to the tobacco-spitting pickup driver who pulls over to ask me if I need help). But I only have access to these experiences because of my relatively wide range of physical ability.
As a designer, I’m responsible to make places that bring joy and discovery to others who might be less able to get out into the wild. Design as activism gets backlash from privileged designers who can’t empathize with others of different physical abilities, political columnists who won’t acknowledge their own vulnerability, and clients who don’t see why universal accessibility will benefit them. As a designer, it’s my job to picture a more inclusive future. I can set up conditions for a garden to support enjoyment by people with a wide range of physical abilities. I can specify benches, keep slopes moderate, make a place easy to access and enjoy. Such efforts benefit everyone, not just people in wheelchairs.
By advocating for more accessible landscapes, designers can make a place at the table for people of all physical abilities. Just have a listen to Rebecca Bunce: “If you’re truly inspired by disabled people, you like being around them, you think they’ve got something good to say, you think that they can create change, then be inspired to go out and create those changes to get them in the room.”
My mom and dad didn’t have anywhere near this level of articulation in their desire to expose me and my siblings to people with physical and mental disabilities. But they got us in the room with them. If you, like me, feel that you could do more to support people with physical disabilities but don’t know how to start, here are some resources: