Experience is the Best Teacher
Anna Grimes, PE, LEED AP, Env SP, Civil Engineering Department Manager
As a civil engineer, designing exterior space to accommodate the disabled is an integral part of what I do. And as many engineers do, I have always pulled out the ADA Standards for Accessible Design and carefully met the minimum requirements for my designs, feeling satisfied that I had done exactly what was needed.
It wasn’t until I experienced my own temporary disability, a foot surgery that left me non-weight bearing for four months, that I became aware of how just meeting the requirements can still create challenges for people with disabilities. Suddenly, every crack in the sidewalk, wheelchair ramp, step, door and even sloughed pavement in a parking lot became a giant impediment.
I had to drop any pretense of independence and rely on others to help me every day. My challenge became a great learning opportunity for those around me, and as the Engineering Department Manager, I felt a strong responsibility to let our engineers and other professionals experience the world through my eyes.
Every trip to a meeting or lunch became an occasion to point out accessibility issues and opportunities for improvement. I let my co-workers see me struggle, knowing that it drove the point home; it allowed them to see that what we are currently doing isn’t enough and aided them in envisioning their role in making things better.
I began putting my thoughts into words and presented at a 2019 American Institute of Architects Nebraska conference “nano session.” My message? As an industry, we can do better. Let’s hold each other accountable for making it happen.
I also posed a challenge to E&A’s summer interns, by giving them unique physical limitations and creating a very real scenario for them to navigate.
While most of us are likely focused on the technical elements of our profession, there is so much more. There is the human element and we need to think beyond the formulas and standards to consider the people who will be setting foot (or wheels, crutches, etc.) on our sites.
In September, Anna spoke about her experience at an American Institute of Architects Nebraska nano session. We also created a series of physical obstacles that were available for conference guests to test out at our display booth. The obstacles gave guests a small taste of the kinds of challenges that people living with a disability may face on a daily basis.
Armed with crutches, a walker, a knee scooter, a wheelchair, a blindfold and white cane, Anna posed a challenge to E&A’s summer interns. They were given a physical limitation and asked to maneuver out of a car, up a steep ramp, down a narrow sidewalk and into a building while carrying a computer bag, lunch and coffee cup. While the activity was light-hearted, the intent was real – living with a disability and trying to complete a daily task like getting into the office, can be difficult. Anna certainly found that out for herself. Today’s engineers need to always be thinking of how their designs could be altered to help, rather than hinder those who need it.