Oh Dad, Poor Dad, the Designer’s Hung You in the Closet and I’m Feeling So Sad

“Poor Mr. Gordon! Last semester, some of my students stuck him down in the basement, and when I asked them why, they said, ‘Well, he’s going to be dead soon anyway!”

“Poor old Mr. Gordon” is a man in his 70’s who is losing his mobility due to Muscular Dystrophy (MS). He’s a fictional character — the “client” in a space planning problem for an evening class I’m taking. While Mr. Gordon is not real, his problems are, and they are shared by millions of people.

Heartless or Heedless?

I’m afraid that I see lots of evidence that too many practicing designers either lack knowledge or compassion when it comes to the issues of aging and disability. Just last week, I talked with a woman I will call “Sandra” who was very unhappy about having shelled out a pretty penny for not one, but three useless floor plans for her bathroom! The reason for Sandra’s bathroom redesign is that she really does have MS, and she would like to still be able to take baths as her mobility wanes.

Walk-in bathtub
Cameo walk-in bathtub from Seacrest Bathing

Sandra already has a wheelchair accessible shower, but like me, she enjoys soaking in the bath. Although Sandra was quite explicit about her needs, none of the alternatives that came back from this interior designer (not a student, but an established, practicing designer) included the necessary grab bars or a space that would allow her to slide from her wheelchair to the side of the tub. That was the whole point of the redesign!

I find this heartbreaking, but unfortunately, not it’s surprising. Ed Walters, the instructor for my evening class, insists that all of his students read and use the accessibility specifications from the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA.) From Ed’s preamble to our reading and space planning assignments, I gather that he’s gotten a lot of push-back from students. (That’s Ed I quoted at the beginning of this blog.)

Not only is Ed beginning his lectures by saying, “I know this is boring, I know that you don’t want to learn this, and I know you think this isn’t relevant to your career plans,” but he’s also taken to using reverse psychology on his students. On the website where files for the class are stored, there’s a folder labeled, “Top Secret. Do Not Open.”  When I opened it, I found an article on the physical and emotional needs of older people who are aging in their own homes for as long as possible, and how to help them delay (or avoid) a move into assisted living!

A sink with a space underneath that allows a wheelchair user to pull all the way up to the counter.
A sink with a space underneath that allows a wheelchair user to pull all the way up to the counter.

I suspect that my fellow students’ age (or lack of it) might be part of the problem that Ed has encountered with the class. Most of the students are twenty or thirty-somethings, so (unlike Ed and me) they are fortunate enough to have little or no experience of disability. Yet!

Youth and Physical Ability:
Just Temporary Conditions!

Some years ago, an indomitable older woman named Lucille Lockhardt recruited my husband Mason to serve on a disability access committee for our church. Lucille was the disability activist who hounded the City of San Francisco into beginning to make curb cuts even before the passage of the ADA, and she was intent on installing ramps, lowering pay phones, and making toilet stalls accessible in the church. Mason politely declined her invitation on the grounds that he was “not disabled.”

Lucille, who was about four and half feet tall and walked, crab-wise, with two crutches, laughed at this. “What you are,” she retorted, “is temporarily abled.” Her words proved prophetic. Within about a year, Mason had back trouble that left him unable to navigate stairs or step off a curb! It was a consciousness-raising experience.

Brain Over Brawn

The truth of the matter is that while none of us get out of this world alive, the fact that we’re all living longer means that most of us will, at some point, be living with disabilities.

I now have three disabilities that would, in the words of the ADA, qualify as “limiting major life activities.” Unlike a wheelchair that announces a person’s disability the moment they enter the room, my disabilities are largely invisible, as are the “accommodations” that enable me to deal with them.

I have an alarm clock like this one. The round object is a "bed shaker" that vibrates when the alarm goes off. I keep it under my pillow. This solves the problem of rolling over onto my "good ear" and not hearing an audial alarm. Once I discovered this, I was no longer dependent on my partner to awaken me every morning.
I have an alarm clock like this one. The round object is a "bed shaker" that vibrates when the alarm goes off. I keep it under my pillow. This solves the problem of rolling over onto my "good ear" and not hearing an audial alarm. Once I discovered this, I was no longer dependent on my partner to awaken me every morning.

However, I can’t read at all without glasses and sufficient light. I have a serious hearing impairment and use a hearing aid as well as phone amplifiers and a special alarm clock. (Those interested in design for the hearing impaired should read my post on “Def” Design in a Noisy World.) I suffer asthma and allergies, and as a result, I have leather furniture and wood floors. My disabilities have not made me dependent, made my home institutional-looking, nor do they prevent me from living an active life. (In fact, I’m sometimes a bit chagrined on those occasions when someone gets up to offer me a seat on the bus.)

However, not much more than five years ago, I was unable to walk up my back stairs without stopping to rest several times. The reason that I can now travel independently, gallop up the stairs two at a time, belly dance, and ice skate twice a week is that I have gained and applied some wisdom about managing my disabilities.

I seriously doubt that my fellow students realize that the reason I sit in the front row of our class has to do with my hearing; maybe they think I’m a teacher’s pet or just want to gaze on Ed Walter’s handsome face! The truth is that the classroom has a serious echo problem. That’s the result of an interior design failure, a designer who did follow the ADA access codes, but still didn’t address the audiological needs of the 10 percent of the public who have hearing loss. I need to sit directly in front of Ed because I need to hear his words before the echo, and to read his lips to augment my hearing aid.

A Lack of Awareness in Many Venues

I often encounter public buildings that do meet the letter of the law, but still fall short in spirit and practice, as does my classroom. In private buildings, the problems are often worse for multiple reasons: the access laws are looser, many people live in buildings that pre-date accessibility legislation, many older and disabled people don’t realize that there are solutions for their problems, and a majority of people never consult an interior designer or architect in any case.

note leather furniture and wood floors.
An interior designed to mitigate dust allergies: note leather furniture and wood floors.

Sadly, even people who do seek professional design help may not get what they need because many practicing interior designers have had neither formal training nor personal exposure to designing for disabilities and aging in place. (This, I suspect, explains how Sandra’s interior designer managed to come up with multiple designs that showed no response to Sandra’s obvious and expressed need for accessible bathroom design.)

Even though my fellow space planning students may not yet have developed much compassion for Mr. Gordon, their certificate program does at least require them to study ADA access codes. In this, they — and their future clients — are fortunate whether they know that or not at the moment.

Still, I often find myself cringing a bit when reading about “award-winning design” or listening to presentations about design “solutions.” Too much of what’s being lauded often has to do with young designers following seasonal trends or expressing their personality at the client’s expense. (The overuse of the word “I” and the under-use of the words “client needs” provides a tip-off.) If a designer is more interested in their industry’s fashion forecast than their client’s health forecast, then they may just think that the easiest way to solve the “design problem” is to stick poor old Mr. Gibson, or dad or grandma, into the basement!

Advice on Seeking Interior Design Help

What if you happen to be Mr. Gibson, figuratively speaking? My advice would be to ask your prospective interior designer some leading questions before plunking down any money. Here are three good questions:

  • Have you had any personal experience with disability? What kind of disability?
  • Do you have training and/or experience in designing for access, or “universal design”?
  • Do you have Certified Aging in Place Specialist (CAPS) training, or work with a contractor who has that training?


When I get older, losing my hair,
Many years from now,
Will you still be sending me a valentine
Birthday greetings bottle of wine?
If I’d been out till quarter to three
Would you lock the door?
Will you still need me, will you still feed me,
When I’m sixty-four?

You’ll be older too,
And if you say the word,
I could stay with you.

I could be handy mending a fuse
When your lights have gone.
You can knit a sweater by the fireside
Sunday mornings go for a ride.
Doing the garden, digging the weeds,
Who could ask for more?

Will you still need me, will you still feed me,
When I’m sixty-four?

–Paul McCartney


6 thoughts on “Oh Dad, Poor Dad, the Designer’s Hung You in the Closet and I’m Feeling So Sad

  1. Great post! I found your sites from your note about Vitrazzo on LinkedIn and boy am I glad I did! I’m a commercial interior designer – no residential experience, even my own home is a mess – but that last paragraph hits the nail on the head in the commercial market as well. You seem to have a philosophy very similar to my own. I will definately be keeping an eye on your blog 🙂

  2. Wow! Those students would have failed that space planning assignment if it had been adminstered by my professors over 15 years ago! The ADA had just been passed when I began as an undergrad and was considered a key component to my education. Students who ignore the ADA do so at their professional peril -especially if they ever want to practice design in a commercial setting. The ADA is not a suggestion it’s FEDERAL LAW and MUST be addressed. It would be interesting to know if Sandra’s space plans were created by an Interior Designer or an Interior Decorator. Understanding the ADA I belive is one of the FUNDAMENTAL diferences that distinguish Interior Designers from Interior Decorators.
    At the same time I think it is the role of the professor to instill in their students that yes we create aesthetically pleasing environments we have to understand that we are creating them for human beings that have to inhabit them. If they can’t do that properly the design has failed.

  3. Oh, the prof didn’t let them get away with it, Sean! He made them buckle down and DO it. I was just astonished at the amount of CARPING that the assignment occasioned.

    And I don’t know anything about Sandra’s “designer” – I’m told that she passed the planning off to an “assistant.” If the designer really is a DESIGNER, and not just a decorator, she SHOULD be trained. But it takes will as well as skill to get it right. The designer might just be manifesting the same attitude the students had all over again. She didn’t WANT to do it; she wasn’t sympathetic to Sandra and she passed it off to an underling who doesn’t know ADA! And then she compounded that poor attitude by failing to supervise the assistant.

    Unfortunately, since my posting, I have heard more such horror stories, and I suppose that, in another sense, I’m NOT surprised. There’s a general attitude in the public of embarrassment and discomfort – you see it in people not being able to meet the eyes of the disabled person. That attitude is replicated among designers. It’s almost as though if the “abled” person is sympathetic or connected, they might catch the disability. As if a wheelchair or a white cane were contagious!

    ADA is the most important piece of civil rights legislation passed in the last two decades – and you’re right, it’s not a “suggestion.” It’s definitely mandated in public spaces, but far more elective in private, residential interiors.

  4. It is surprising to hear of a licensed Interior Designer ignorant of ADA specifications and guidelines. It is part of being licensed. Education and testing on this subject is mandatory.
    There should be a better way for a potential client to know of the credentials for an Interior Designer if a license is not enough.

  5. Nice article. I actually work for the National MS Society, and this is such a huge issue to so many of our clients. I know we actually awareded a general scholorship to a young man several years ago, and now ADA accessability is his area of focus – having seen these challenges with his family.

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