Design for Accessibility: College Campus Accessible Features

Introduction

For my undergraduate Human-Computer Interaction (HCI) course at Emory University, I was tasked with walking around and navigating my local vicinity using only accessible options, such as ramps and powered doors. In doing so, I hoped to learn about current development approaches for creating inclusive systems and empathize with users with disabilities who may not feel supported by the infrastructures and options in their environments. I decided explore west campus of Emory College of Arts and Sciences, substituting my typical path as a student with accessible options. As Emory University promotes our diverse community, I was interested to see how convenient it is to navigate between classes and dining options as a student with disabilities. In this post, I will showcase, discuss, and evaluate the various accessibility options (or lack thereof) at Emory University, and posit the tensions as an accessibility researcher without disabilities.

A view of the Emory College west campus.

Motivation

When we interact and engage with various infrastructures, technologies, and entities on a regular basis, we often forget how well integrated they are in our lives. The designs match our needs and are intimately woven in a way that external objects feel like natural extensions of human life; however, these designs are not perfect. Not everyone can enjoy well-paved roads or sidewalks, aesthetically-pleasing glass doors, or access to delicious food options — to name a few; people with disabilities may be unable to use stairs, open doors, or enter through conventional entrances.

  • How would our society’s infrastructure change if we suddenly could not perform our daily activities through typical means?
  • How might we enter a building if we could not simply walk through the front door?
  • How might we acquire our favorite sandwich from the restaurant on the third floor if we could not take the stairs?

For people without disabilities, these questions may pose mere creative challenges, but for people with disabilities, these questions are problems embedded into their lives.

Method, Exploration, and Results

I walked around Emory’s west campus using only accessible options and annotated a map of all of the available or absent options. In embodying an undergraduate student needing accessibility accommodations, my goals included pathing from classroom buildings to food options to recreational centers because I wanted to assure that accessible options were relevant, meaningful, and effectively placed.

My annotated map is as follows:

Annotated map illustrating the various accessible options around Emory’s west campus.

The map details powered doors (purple), ramps (light slate), stairs/ledges (red), elevators (yellow), and signage (light blue) in colored line markings on the map. The green path indicates my walking route, and the blue path indicates the shuttle route.

The following images showcase some of the accessibility options present and not present at Emory College.

A gif showing a popular entrance for the Callaway Center. There is no accessibility button available.
(1), (2), (3) Images of the multiple entrances into the Callaway Center

In the previous images, there are multiple entrances into the Callaway Center, but each entrance is barricaded by stairs or a ledge, thus it is inaccessible for this project. For (1), it is interesting to note that the stairs descend and guide users into a ramp, but this ramp is awkwardly placed as users who would use the ramp cannot use the stairs. For (2), it is interesting to note that the ledge is not necessary and could instead taper into a ramp.

A gif of using the only accessible entrance into the Callaway Center.

I finally found an accessible entrance after walking around the entire building.

The previous gif shows the only accessible entrance into the Callaway Center. There is a powered door and a ramp that allows users to access the building.

(1), (2), (3) Images of the inside and outside of the Callaway Center

The previous images show a (1) natural ramp into the Callaway area and (3) an accessible path into the building. (2) shows an elevator — another accessible option — inside the Callaway Center for navigating between floors.

(1), (2), (3) Images of Emory’s common use of stairs into buildings and signage pointing users into accessible routes

(1) shows another example of an inaccessible entrance due to use of stairs and ledges. (2) and (3) show signage that guide users to accessible options.

These signs would have been helpful for navigating the Callaway Center.

(1), (2) Images of accessibility signage and ramps guiding users into the Emory Student Center

From the previous images, we can see how much more convenient taking stairs can be than the ramp. (2) depicts the extra length and time that users must sacrifice from using the ramp.

A gif of using the powered door at the Emory Student Center

This gif showcases more of the accessibility options at the Emory Student Center, a newer building.

Another important design feature is the button being placed at a wheelchair-height and before the door. From previous images, we have seen the button attached at a higher height next to the door, which is inconvenient for a user with a wheelchair as they must tediously press the button and move out of the way. This design may have incorporated feedback from real users who require accessibility accommodations, as opposed to simply augmenting existing buildings with options.

The Emory Student Center’s accessibility options show Emory’s increasing efforts to include more accessibility in building planning.

(1), (2), (3) Images of the shuttle and its accessibility options

Users should be able to use the shuttle system for efficiently getting around campus. (1) shows signage that alerts users of available accessibility options. (2) shows designated seating for users with disabilities or accommodations. (3) shows a ramp that can be lifted and positioned for users with wheelchairs; near the ramp, seats can be conveniently lifted, thus making space for wheelchairs.

Discussion

From the previous images of accessible options, I noticed that users without disabilities or need for accessible accommodations have higher quality of life through having convenient access to multiple entrances or paths. Especially given Emory’s hilly terrain, there were many stairs and ledges along my route that I could not use given the project constraints. A building may have multiple entrances, but it may only have one accessible entrance that users with disabilities can use, which is very limiting.

Although one accessible entrance is better than none, this limited availability also poses risks during emergencies, such as a fire or a hazard, because it will be difficult for users with disabilities to evacuate. For example, Callaway Center has one accessible entrance and an elevator for floor navigation, but isn’t elevator use discouraged during fires? There is not only a convenience factor at play but also a safety factor.

Further, while exploring all the accessible options on my route, I realized it would interesting to compare and contrast the availability of options between Emory’s older and newer buildings.

The previous section showcases a lot of the older Callaway Center and the newer Emory Student Center accessibility options, and immediately we can see how the Student Center incorporates more options and more design considerations. Despite the two buildings’ comparable sizes, the old Callaway Center only has one accessible entrance, whereas the new Student Center has multiple accessible entrances with mostly powered doors and accessibility signage. The Callaway Center has no signage guiding users to accessibility options, thus I had to walk around the whole building —if I was a first-year student needing accessibility accommodations, I would certainly be late for class.

Since the Emory Student Center is newer, it is good news that accessible design and development are becoming increasingly prominent in modern planning discourse. I can imagine that intentionally including accessible options from the start will be more efficient and effective than trying to implement options from an afterthought.

Another interesting revelation is other people’s warm regards for people who require accessibility accommodations. Before using the Emory shuttle system, I was worried and stressed that I would be an inconvenience for the driver and passengers for needing to use the shuttle ramp and accessible seating; however, the driver was very friendly about explaining and sharing how users have access to the ramp if needed, in addition to movable seats for wheelchairs.

Limitations

As I am someone who does not have disabilities or require accessibility accommodations, this research exploration contains biases. I only observed what accessibility options exist at Emory University, thus I do not know if my pathing or interactions are genuine or natural as a user with disabilities would know. A better approach to this exploration is to interview users who actively and typically use the accessibility options that the campus provides and follow their daily journey.

Then, I also recognize my privilege in having choice to use or not use these accessibility options. Many times throughout my day I asked myself “what if I just stepped down from this ledge?” and I had to stop and remind myself that I could not. Users with disabilities do not get this luxury. They must navigate a typically inaccessible world and develop their own solutions where they can.

Conclusion

Through this research project, I empathized greatly with users with disabilities or people who require accessibility accommodations. What is convenient for me may be exclusive and inconvenient for someone else. I may be able to step over a ledge to get to my destination faster, but someone else may have to walk meters for a ramp or crosswalk.

A college student with disabilities could attend Emory College and feel supported, but current designs are not perfect and much more improvements are needed.

My exploration of Emory College was surprising and optimistic. I expected the campus to have more accessibility options given the university’s promoted diversity in faculty, staff, and student body, but I found that many of the buildings — especially the older buildings, such as the Callaway Center— did not support accessibility options. Some options were inconveniently or awkwardly located, thus it was another challenge to not only use these options but to also find them. I found that the newer buildings, such as the Emory Student Center, had a lot more accessibility options with powered doors, ramps, and signage pointing to such options. This may indicate that accessibility concerns are becoming more prominent in development conversations. Another perspective could be that the Emory Student Center acts as a landmark for prospective students, thus having more accessible designs in its vicinity could be a marketing or tourism-facade tactic.

As technologies and infrastructures becoming increasingly pervasive in our society, it is important to include accessibility options in design, planning, and implementation. Current designs and tools are usable by most people but not all — these smaller, overshadowed populations of people still must be seen, respected, and included.

Acknowledgements

I would like to thank my fellow classmate, Jasmin, for joining me on my accessibility journey.

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A human at the intersection of visual arts, computer science, and data science.

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A human at the intersection of visual arts, computer science, and data science.

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