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Beyond code: Striving for universal design

Stantec designers share how a wheelchair challenge added another tool to their design toolkit: empathy

By Ena Kenny, Senior Interior Designer, Associate, (Toronto, ON) and guest blogger Jason Chiles, IT Consultant and self-professed “Geek on Wheels” accessibility advocate

Ena’s Story
Towards the end of my mother’s life, she was in a wheelchair, and I struggled helping her get around the city. I had similar challenges navigating the city with my child in a stroller. Then last December, I saw Jason Chiles—self-professed “Geek on Wheels”—at  IIDEXCanada 2015, which is Canada’s National Design + Architecture Expo + Conference. He gave a seminar on accessibility fails and wins he has noticed going about his daily life in a wheelchair in Toronto, Ontario. 

Jason’s experiences really resonated with me. He further opened my eyes to the lack of equitable access on our city streets, throughout our transportation system, and in our buildings—even in places designed to or beyond code. As a registered interior designer with a focus on healthcare design, I thought of myself as always keeping accessibility concerns at front of mind in my design work. But after seeing Jason, I realized I could probably do even better.

            Related Item: Learn about Architecture & Interior Design at Stantec

Jason got me thinking about Stantec’s architecture, engineering, and design office where I work, and whether we could challenge my colleagues who may not have faced accessibility challenges, either personally or with a loved one, in their day-to-day lives. Last spring, I asked Jason to share his story and experiences with our office. His talk made quite an impact on our team. 

He closed his presentation by proposing a “wheelchair challenge,” which took place in July. An architect and an intern interior designer navigated through our office in a wheelchair, supported by Jason and their colleagues.

Check out our “wheelchair challenge” video to see how they did and what they learned.  

Transcript of the video follows
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<p><b>Melina Davari</b>: It changes your perspective, it makes you question everything that you've been doing so far and whether those rules and guidelines are really applicable.</p> <p><b>Vlad Bortnowski</b>: It was interesting to see is how to experience the office from that point of view, from the wheelchair, and how are the various barriers around the office.</p> <p><b>Jason Chiles</b>: My name is Jason Chiles. I am jokingly referred to in 2 ways, as a professional on wheels but I prefer to refer to myself as a geek on wheels. I haven't always been in a chair. I've actually only been in the chair for the last 5 years. I went through the process of living a normal life of what everybody would consider to be normal, walking, doing all my normal activities, to having to make the transition to living life in the chair.</p> <p>Today what we're here for is what we've discussed as a wheelchair challenge and I'm going to propose a scenario to all of you. You've had a catastrophic accident. It doesn't matter what it is, we'll call it a car accident that your spinal cord was injured. You've gone through the healing aspect of it, you've been in a rehab hospital. But this is the first time that you have been approved to come back to work. Today is your day that you are coming back to Stantec for the very first time in your chair. How is it to get into the office? How is it to move around the office? How is it to get to your workstation, to use the washroom, to use the lunchroom and then to come back here and to come into the boardroom?</p> <p><b>Melina</b>: I wanted to have a better understanding of how people in wheelchair move and maneuver around the spaces, ho w do they open doors, how do they use the washrooms, how does it feel to go up the ramps.</p> <p>Having a somewhat level transition between materials, it is very important, as you saw I couldn't really get over one of the transitions.</p> <p>We just need to be more aware of our detailing, material selection, and overall how we design spaces and understand that people who are in wheelchair, they're not really on their feet it's their wheels that become their feet, and having to move around a space on wheels it's very different than walking on surfaces.</p> <p><b>Vlad</b>: One thing that is very annoying is the lift is very very slow, and you have to spend about ten minutes at least to move to take the key, to get the key in, get to the elevator and get to your desk.</p> <p>I think I'm going to look again even more carefully on how we design the facilities that we are working on in this office.</p> <p><b>Melina</b>: This was the most amazing experience I’ve ever had as a designer, I have to say, because it definitely did change my perspective. Our office is designed to code, however just moving in the chair around the office it did make me realize that we need to be, when we’re designing, it’s not just about the code, we need to be a little bit more empathetic towards everyone.</p>

Jason’s Story
The wheelchair challenge actually started out as a bit of a joke during a seminar on Designing with Empathy about a year before IIDEX Canada 2015. But after a few more talks and some brainstorming, it morphed into a serious challenge that I started to put out at various speaking engagements. Here’s the “What if?” that sets up the challenge:

You’ve recently been in a catastrophic accident that has left you paralyzed. You survived. You’ve healed. You’ve gone through rehab. You’ve got the equipment you need to live your life and now it’s time to go back to work. How well would your office stand up (if you’ll pardon the bad pun) to the challenge of a wheelchair?

The wheelchair challenge offers people the opportunity to do more than just listen to someone with a disability discuss what works and what doesn’t work in design. The challenge is about letting people experience a place they are familiar with from a different perspective and to push their assumptions of what accessibility means.

Up until IIDEX, no company or designers had taken me up on the challenge. Then I met Ena Kenny. We spoke at length about the issues of designing for accessibility and discussed the possibility of doing a talk with her Stantec colleagues and potentially doing the challenge. I’m grateful to Ena and Stantec for the chance to share my experiences and for being the first to take the wheelchair challenge. A special thanks as well to our two “guinea pigs on wheels,” Melina Davari and Vlad Bortnowski, for volunteering to step out of their comfort zones and take the challenge.

As the video shows, the wheelchair challenge turned out to be a valuable tool in changing some perspectives. These perspectives can apply to more than just employees, but to potential clients, customers, suppliers—anyone who lives and works with a disability.

The video also shows that Stantec’s downtown Toronto office does many things right and is actually quite accessible compared to many buildings I visit. However, the wheelchair challenge participants and I discovered obstacles that you just wouldn’t see unless you’re in a wheelchair. For example, the ramps in the office provide quite a workout and the lift needed to reach the building’s elevator takes a lot of time to use. These were the biggest eye openers. I face these types of challenges far too often in my life as both an IT consultant and accessibility advocate.

Is your workspace ready for a disabled coworker or a client who you didn’t know needed a chair, or was visually impaired? We can’t anticipate every possible disability, but when our spaces are designed with that empathy in mind, we can make them better for everyone’s use.

To learn more

  • To arrange a wheelchair challenge, contact Jason Chiles at
  • For more insights on accessibility, visit Jason’s Geek on Wheels blogsite

Ena Kenny is passionate about developing healthcare interiors, creating supportive and patient-centered environments, with an emphasis on design for mental health and elder-friendly design. Follow Ena on Twitter and Instagram @enakenny

Guest blogger Jason Chiles is an IT Consultant and self-professed “Geek on Wheels” who blogs and speaks on accessibility issues. Follow Jason on Twitter @JasonChiles

The wheelchair challenge offers people the opportunity to do more than just listen to someone with a disability discuss what works and what doesn’t work in design.

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