What Can a Designer Do?

By Omer Gorashi

I trudge up the stairs to my humble apartment in Harlem, barely surviving a long first week of classes at a campus foreign to me compared to The Grounds I knew so well. Slowly losing pace with each flight, I reach the top floor, hearing my celebratory sigh echo down below. I pause for a moment thinking about what it would have been like for my late father to visit me in the city.

As I continue to mourn his passing in April, every staircase I encounter in New York City reminds me of my father’s journey with disability.

In 2005, a work-related accident altered two of his spinal disks, severely impairing his nervous system, and ultimately changing our lives forever. After a month of anxious hospital visits with my mother and siblings, the first time I began to question accessibility in design was his return home. In helping my father up stairs, open doors, and sometimes even scout out an alternative, more accessible path altogether, we confronted the barriers of the built environment. From these seemingly small gestures between a parent and child, arose the initial reason why I decided to follow the path of an architect. While applying to graduate programs in December 2020, I actually spent some time looking through my old transfer application to UVA, surprised by my eagerness to help him and those who also received the shorter end of architecture in my essay. 

Asking myself where did all that enthusiasm go, I reflected upon my last three years of undergrad. Surprisingly enough, accessibility was a topic normally avoided in most of my course work, and whenever addressed I would be told by critics, “Not to worry too much about fitting difficult realities into unbuilt designs” or “Refer to the ADA guidelines if you are that earnest about it.”

The only time I as a student was asked to put accessibility at the forefront of my work, was during my final semester by Garnette Cadogan, The School of Architecture’s 2020-2021 Porter Visiting Professor’s (currently, the Tunney Lee Distinguished Lecturer in Urbanism at MIT School of Architecture + Planning) seminar “Reimagining Public Spaces: Making Room for Others.” The course challenged me and my classmates to approach public space with a greater creativity and deeper understanding towards concern for the rich humanity of the varied people in shared spaces, to create public spaces with greater sophistication, to develop and employ a more thoughtful design philosophy, to be alert to what constitutes a just city, and be motivated to actively work to understand public spaces by patiently and respectfully listening to the multiple publics that use—or avoid—them.

During his course, we even had the honor and privilege of conversing with Sara Hendren, artist and design researcher at the Olin College of Engineering in Needham, Massachusetts, who also has a son with Down Syndrome. Before our discussion, Cadogan introduced us to her book What Can a Body Do?: How We Meet the Built World where she asks readers to question the things and spaces we interact with or to better imagine the collective desires and needs of the human body when living in the world.

Below is an excerpt from her book that we read for class, but more importantly what resonated with me as a designer the most.

“But disability is not a fixed or permanent label that belongs only to some people; it arrives for each of us. Short-term injury and long-term illness, changes in our perception and mobility (and the perceptions of others about us), the chronic misfires that happen in our emotional makeup—if it’s not a reality in your life now, it’s sure to be so in some form, in your own body or among those who share your intimate life. Disability gathers a dimensional we like nothing else, because disability is no more and no less than human needfulness, both personal and political. That’s why the we that ties together this book is as tenuous as it is important: the collective that arises in the form of shared bodily vulnerability, the ways our physicality and our thriving are tied.

So often, of course, the first person plural is a falsehood: Who is this we, a word mostly used to blithely generalize from one person’s limited experience in a myopic way? Our distinctions and specificities are important. But for disability and design in this book, the we is both real and profound. It’s not that all our bodies are the same. It’s that the stakes for life together are universally shared by the misfit states that come for every body. We find ourselves in need of assistance—some of it from the forms of the designed world (or, as these stories show, the redesigned world), and some from one another, body to world and back. But getting help? That’s for my son, Graham, but it’s also for me and for you, for all of us. Not everyone should call themselves disabled, but everyone should recognize that both giving and receiving assistance are actions we will each take up in turn, every one of us. Human needfulness really is universal. We—and I do mean we—might choose to let tools for assistance be visible and unifying.”

Sara Hendren, “What Can a Body Do?: How We Meet the Built World”

Just as I have recently taken a significant step forward in my architecture studies, disciplines both within and outside the realm of the built environment have begun—and I only say begun because there certainly remains a long way to go—as well.

So whenever I see that an architecture school has or is looking for a new administrator dedicated to matters of “Diversity,” “Equity” and or “Inclusivity,” I can only hope that they are cognizant of their intersections with accessibility. Or will schools just have to invent yet another role for that purpose? In self-critical efforts, I finish this piece as an attestation to my re-found commitment as a designer to work towards a more accessible, inclusive, and equitable built environment. I only hope you join me in learning a little bit more about even the subtlest of design decisions that would either make or break my dad’s day. I recommend you start with Sara Hendren’s book!

Omer Gorashi is a Sudanese American, designer and urban photographer (@soozysufi on IG and @omer___go on Twitter). He currently pursues his Master’s of Architecture at Columbia University Graduate School of Architecture Preservation and Planning, upon graduating from the UVA School of Architecture (BSArch ’21). At UVA, his design coursework questioned how interventions within the built environment can improve the human condition, socially and culturally, as well as physiologically, mentally and emotionally here and abroad. He has worked at Leers Weinzapfel Architects in Boston, with UVA’s in-house Design Group where he assisted with the recent renovation of the A-School’s FabLab and LOT-EK in New York City. Outside of architecture, he volunteers with several non-profits, such as Islamic Relief USA and Pious Projects of America, serving Muslim communities worldwide.

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