The Fifthteenth Annual Berkeley Undergraduate Prize for Architectual Design Excellence 2013
Berkeley Prize 2013

Required Reading - 1


Elaine Ostroff, Honorary AIA

Remarkable as it might sound, within your lifetime, the understanding and definition of those who were formerly seen as “handicapped” has dramatically changed.  The millennia-old medical emphasis, which focused on the limitations of our physically disabled relatives, friends, and neighbors and in the process often denied their rights, has been transformed.  Today, accessible design and inclusive (or universal) design are the key phrases that point to an acceptance of the almost startling idea that “they” are “us.”

Accessible design says that every facet of the built environment should be able to be easily used by all of us.  This is true whether we have full use of our bodies and minds or have some illness or accident that makes us temporarily dependent on crutches, or require, for instance, the long-term use of a walker or a wheelchair.  Inclusive design takes the notion of accessibility one step further by giving it a new social dimension.  As architects, we should not think of ourselves as designing special solutions for a particular sub-group of people, but for all of us.  We are them.

 One of the most visible indications of this shift in thinking is the adoption in 2006 of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.  The Convention, which has now been signed by 153 countries, incorporates the World Health Organization’s (WHO) official redefinition of disability.  WHO asserts that disability is not only a set of characteristics within the person; disability is increased or overcome by environmental conditions. 

These are not abstract problems.   Two statistics shine a spotlight on the problem:  First, last year’s landmark World Report on Disability, produced jointly by WHO and the World Bank, estimates that more than a billion people in the world today experience disability.  Second, this number is certain to increase even more dramatically in coming years.  The world’s population of people over the age of 60 will double by 2050.   These older persons experience functional disabilities at upwards of triple the rate of younger people.

This is a powerful international call for action and opportunity for architects to rethink their role in society and to more fully appreciate the power of design.  As the creators of the physical environment, this is an extraordinary time for architects to work to create human-centered design that makes it possible for people of all abilities to participate fully in community life.  Architects have the power to help create an inclusive city that improves all of our lives.  You have the power to enable or to disable, to include or to exclude.

The American architectural journalist and current head of the American Institute of Architects, Robert Ivy, says it in a way that reaches out to all of us: 

Have you ever broken your arm and tried to open a door?  Been late for a plane and had to negotiate a crowded airport?…Struggled to understand direction signage in the streets of an unfamiliar city?  Felt left out at a neighborhood meeting because you couldn’t see or hear the speaker?  Reached to settle your belongings on a high self that lies just beyond your reach?  If so, you have faced the consequences of design, an activity that has the power to affect our daily lives, for good or ill.  (Foreword, Universal Design Handbook)

Inclusive design is an approach to making buildings and places that honors human diversity.  It addresses the right for everyone from childhood into their older years to use all spaces, products and information in an independent and equal way.  This is not simply compliance with regulations for accessibility, but re-imagining how accessibility could work. 

The 2013 BERKELEY PRIZE asks what has been done and what more could be done in your community to create an inclusive city that welcomes and ennobles every person.  As you look about your city using the eyes of a disabled person, what do you see?  If you required a wheelchair to be mobile for either a day, a month, or your lifetime how would you get from Point “A” or Point “B”?  Tell us about the journey.  If you were blind, how would shop for your food, get to work, meet friends for entertainment and participate fully with them?  Tell us about how your community has made these daily functions more accessible for all us.

Finally, tell us how all of these design interventions could be made even more inclusive and how.


* Click Here for the printed version of an illustrated power point presentation, American Diversity and Design: Aging, Design, and US Legislation by the author on the subject of universal design and a more thorough look at the statistics, particularly slides 13-20.

Elaine Ostroff, Hon. AIA, co-founded Boston-based Adaptive Environments in 1978. In 1989 she developed the Universal Design Education Project (UDEP) at Adaptive Environments. UDEP was a national project with design educators that has become an international model for infusing universal design in professional curriculum. She coined the term “user/expert” in 1995 to identify the individuals whose personal experiences give them unique critical capacity to evaluate environments. In 1998, she convened the Global Universal Design Education Network and its Online Newsletter. She stepped down as Executive Director in 1998 and now works as a consultant with the Institute for Human Centered Design/Adaptive Environments. There she directs the Access to Design Professions Project, with funding from the National Endowment for the Arts. Access to Design Professions encourages people with disabilities to enter the design professions as a way to improve the practice of universal design.

The U.S. Association on Higher Education and Disability (AHEAD) honored her with their 2007 Achievement award.  In 2006, the American Institute of Architects (AIA) awarded her an Honorary Member designation. In addition, she is the 2004 recipient of the British-based, international Misha Black Medal for Distinguished Services in Design Education – the first woman and the first American to receive that award. In 2003 Ostroff was awarded the (United States) Association of Collegiate Schools of Architecture Honorary Award. Ostroff was the Senior Editor of the Universal Design Handbook published by McGraw-Hill in 2001. She has her B.S from Brandeis University, an Ed.M from Harvard University and was a Radcliffe Institute Fellow in 1970-72.

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