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Architecture School hosts Awareness Day

MEGAN DOYLE | Monday, August 30, 2010

In order to help gain a better understanding of the needs of the disabled, fourth-year architecture students navigated campus hallways and sidewalks in wheelchairs, crutches and blindfolds Friday as part of the School of Architecture’s third annual Accessibility Awareness Day.

“Our hope is that they would walk the walk with empathy and understanding of what people with various disabilities go through in their normal life,” architecture professor William Ponko said.

Ponko said the School of Architecture worked with the Office of the University Architect and Notre Dame Disability Services in order to provide these students with a hands-on approach to learning about accessibility design.

After spending their mornings using their wheelchairs and other equipment, the architecture students visited Notre Dame Stadium to see its accommodations for accessibility and then spent time discussing their observations from the entire day.

“Close to 50 percent of all American citizens will experience a disability within their lifetime,” Ponko said. “Accessibility is not just an afterthought or a modification to a design.”

Office for Students with Disabilities program coordinator Scott Howland said Accessibility Awareness Day gives students practical experience to better accommodate for disabled individuals in future designs.

“The original thought behind this was to go right to the source of who would be designing buildings in the future,” Howland said. “This is a way to get them thinking about how a person in a wheelchair might interact with certain designs.”

Howland said the idea of universal design is the base for Accessibility Awareness Day.

“[Architecture students] can learn to design something from its beginning to be used by everybody,” he said.

Senior Gina Paietta said her day in a wheelchair and on crutches was an “eye-opening experience” to the way she sees architecture and design.

“Someone entering a building in a wheelchair is not experiencing the building in the same way as someone else,” Paietta said.

Architects face the challenge of designing buildings so a disabled individual can engage in a design as similarly as possible to someone without a disability, she said.

Paietta said students faced difficulties finding and navigating some of the campus ramps to enter classroom buildings and accessing the Grotto.

Even with the minimum standards from the American Disability Association (ADA) in place in many buildings at Notre Dame, navigating an older campus designed before accessibility consciousness was an issue was difficult, Paietta said.

Student feedback was presented to the offices of the University Architect and Disability Services, she said.

“I think that as the students mature and go through their fourth and fifth-year projects, they design with awareness for people with disabilities,” Ponko said.

Howland said the insight he heard from students after they returned their equipment spoke to the success of the day.

“It was a way for us to see how we would change things,” Paietta said. “I think everyone really did get a lot out of the project.”