The Paradox of Aesthetics in Accessible Design: A Different Perspective

Three people enter a campus aquatic facility. One of them is a paraplegic wheelchair user, one of them is a student athlete that just had knee surgery, and one of them is a professor whose knees have been stiff from the cold weather. Even though these people face different mobility challenges, they would all struggle to enter the pool without some kind of access point.

Perspective is essential when discussing accessible design; it looks different to everyone and can be situational, as shown in the example above. The idea that accessibility has a one-size-fits-all solution is fundamentally flawed. Therefore, the first step to creating inclusive spaces for students is understand that ability is a spectrum, not a black-and-white rulebook that equals compliance. Especially in today’s post-secondary educational landscape, where young minds are seeking self-identity and inspiration for who they are going to be in this life, educators and universities need to think carefully about how to provide the equitable education that all students deserve.

Seeking Out Inclusive Branding

Especially in private universities, a school’s branding is more important than ever before. The current college generation is making many purchase decisions based on digital imagery and brand perception before they’ve ever stepped foot on campus. Because the approach to access on many campuses tends to be a tunnel vision focus only on compliance, colleges and universities can easily fall short of the steps that could be taken to create a more welcoming and inclusive experience. Institutions of higher education need to think outside the box with branding and look for ways to reach a wider base of students by making both campuses and messaging more inclusive. Once a university understands the ways the students with disabilities interact with the campus and facilities, marketing and communications offices can find creative ways to make those experiences more meaningful.

Mind, Body, and Soul

For many able-bodied students, campus recreation facilities are safe places that can offer a release from the everyday stresses of being a college student, build the feeling of community and belonging, and even contribute to mental resilience. Given their therapeutic nature, these facilities are arguably one of the most important places for people with disabilities, but they can also be places that many people with disabilities feel the least welcomed.

Campus planners need to think about where they have made investments in their own facilities. If the lockers and bleachers were thoughtfully chosen in the college’s brand colors, was the same thought and financial investment made in choosing branded access equipment? If the time and money was spent in picking out top-of-the-line, state-of-the-art fitness machines, is a reasonable percentage of that equipment independently accessible for wheelchair users? Both planners and marketers need to consider whether students with disabilities would feel welcomes when taking a virtual tour of the campus.

Let the Campus Do the Talking

As fitness facilities began to adapt for use by people with disabilities, the goal at first was simply to get people in the pool. While safe, quality access is still the number one goal, thanks to modern evolutions in manufacturing—and input from architects and end-users alike—we are now seeing more attractive designs take place. Aquatic access equipment like pool lifts can now be customized to match the school’s brand colors, instead of the cold, medical-looking cranes that used to reside by the pool. Fitness machines are now being manufactured for wheelchair-specific use, rather than expecting a wheelchair user to transfer to a machine that simply was not designed adaptively. Accessibility does not mean sacrificing aesthetics. In fact, access equipment should be given the same amount of attention and care as the rest of the facility components.

As architects, designers, and manufacturers continue to work together to create better solutions for as many abilities as possible, universities can now provide more equitable experiences for future generations. People with disabilities currently represent the largest minority in our country, and the youth of that minority will be choosing their educational investments largely based on digital research that will formulate their overall brand perception. Ultimately, the more inclusively a campus is designed, the more students it will be able to speak to.

About the Author
Marley Cunningham, Director of Marketing at Aqua Creek Products in Missoula, Montana