Designing for Invisible Disabilities

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A lot of our projects here at Avid involve working with community groups who have very specific needs.  Needs that most often do not fit into the typical mold.  It is our goal as designers to carefully understand these needs in order to translate them into the built space in a more meaningful way.  Lara Pinchbeck is a designer who we enjoy collaborating with, and we sat down with her to have a chat on invisible disabilities, which is her specialty.  Invisible disabilities are special needs that people have that may not seem obvious at first, such as sensory processing challenges, cognitive or intellectual disabilities, or effects such as concussions or seizures.  These conditions are often more complex and challenges the designer to really slow down, evaluate and reflect.

Lara considers herself as a “slow designer.”  She prefers to focus on the process of achieving the product rather than the product itself.  As designers, we are sometimes expected to come up with quick and sometimes ostentatious solutions.  However, the best solutions don’t always have to be your gut reaction.  Often, we may need to attempt several times to solve a problem, and each time may require slow and detailed analyses. 

For instance, we need the opportunity to evaluate how we use trendy words and concepts.  By simply regurgitating buzz words, we might lose the whole idea behind a concept, and end up with superficial designs that don’t serve its users.   As designers, we’re familiar with the term “open space plan” and often include the idea into our designs.  However, often, the only thing we’ve included is the easiest part of that concept, which is that it is “open.”  Over time, other parts of this idea have become diluted and its real value lost.  We need to go back to the original intention of the idea, recognizing it may take more time, in order to understand if it truly represents our space and design.

Lara usually works with user groups who are marginalized – people who experience barriers and gaps and are often not considered in our typically designed environment.  She explains,

Their characteristics are challenging to design for as they are not stable or consistent, or they might have some cognitive or intellectual challenges.  These challenges prevent them from being able to communicate easily, and make it difficult to engage them in a typical design process.  In order to fully understand their needs, we need to change how we approach design by slowing down and listening.  For instance, an important part of the design process is to take the user group, stakeholders or clients through a series of exercises that allow them to better know who they are and to distinguish between their wants, needs and expectations.  These exercises should be tailored and made appropriate for the group, and the results should help lay the ground for future decision making in the later stages of the project.

Implementing this method of design isn’t easy.  It requires designers to create a relationship with their clients, and to mutually recognize that the process of achieving results will take longer.  She explains, “the whole process should include research as a critical component in the design process where one is committed to exploring and understanding the relationship between the space, the objects therein and the people.  It is an ongoing manifestation of the lived experiences of the inhabitants that is beyond the static design of a space.”

She challenges us to rethink how we assess a building’s functionality.  Depending on the situation, it might not be enough to just walk through and observe.  For example, if it was an assessment of how a housing development functions, it might be more useful to physically move in and temporarily live there.  This way, you can make more in-depth observations that occur over time and have deeper conversations with residents.  She states, “rather than just focusing on the place, we should focus on the people who inhabit the space.”  This allows us to truly understand the culture of the place rather than making quick assumptions. In order to bring in more aspects of this design method, there needs to be a deliberate shift in how we build our practices.  We need to create a balance between projects that can be done quickly and provide financial sustenance and ones that require more time and contemplation.  Lara wisely states that it becomes a balance between how you can sustain yourself versus what feeds your soul.

Photo credit: Randy Boissonnault, MP Edmonton Centre