Beyond the Build

Community Service

Civil Rights and the Evolution of Design

Last fall, we broke ground on a project that was more than special. It’s an honor.

Independent Living Resources provides community-based, non-residential services and advocacy for those living with disabilities. The new location we are building in Birmingham’s Civil Rights District seems more than fitting. As IRL Executive Director Dan Kessler, told The Birmingham News, “Human rights is a part of (the Civil Rights) mission, and disability rights is big part of that movement.”

Beyond all ILR gives the community, what most impressed us about their folks was the focus on something called Universal Design.

Universal Design centers on accessibility for as many people as possible. This can be in the form of environments, objects and systems. For followers of the concept, buildings should to be usable to the greatest extent possible by everyone, regardless of their age, ability or status in life.

Independent Living Resources is able to take universal design to a new level, because the majority of people on staff have disabilities. Involving them in the design process has been particularly enlightening.

Here are a few ways Universal Design is being used at ILR:

Door Openers. Standard accessible entrances include a push button for access, which excludes those who lack upper body mobility. ILR will be installing a version that can be activated using a wheelchair footrest. These will be placed inside and outside at the front and back doors.

Quiet Room. Individuals with stress disabilities or those prone to migraines can use this space to relax. It will be equipped with a daybed, and no cell phones or work materials are allowed inside.

Parking spaces. The 14 spaces closest to the building are divided by bollards and feature a detectable paver system for the vision-impaired. This also provides good visual separation for all drivers.

HVAC. The building has been divided into smaller HVAC zones, giving more control of the temperature in personal workspace and increasing the comfort of those people who work and visit.

Workstations. Areas such as the reception desk will have low and high transaction counters for better access for those who are doing business from a wheelchair.

Light. The lighting has been designed to minimize triggers for people who suffer seizures and other similar conditions. The open workspace features lots of windows, and glass partitions let the light flow throughout the office.

Site Selection. The building is located with convenient access to public transportation and sidewalks have been modified with ramps down to the street for access by people with disabilities.

Community Connectivity. The site is within walking distance of the power and gas utility companies, the Social Security office, and several other public buildings and community service organizations.

What we’re learning is that the principles of Universal Design make sense. Open spaces, wider halls, additional light and facilities that can be modified don’t just benefit people with disabilities. They make buildings better for us all.

What accessibility changes have you made to make your facilities better for everyone?


Merrill Stewart Jr.

Merrill Stewart is Founder and CEO of The Stewart/Perry Company, a commercial building contractor based in Birmingham.