Karen Braitmayer
Daniel Sheehan Karen Braitmayer

Several years ago, an undergraduate student approached an academic adviser who worked with the university’s architecture department. The student expressed an interest in architecture, but was quickly told he couldn’t be an architect because he couldn’t use his hands to draw with pencil and paper. He didn’t challenge that verdict and left the adviser’s office. As a person with a physical disability, he had likely faced similar dismissals before and decided to choose a more welcoming program.

As an architect with a disability, I am at a loss when I hear such stories—especially given the fact that technological advances have made being an architect less about drawing by hand and more about the ability to master computer applications.

I am also at a loss when I review diversity programs supported by architecture organizations and see only ethnicity and gender listed. I am at a loss when I see equity scholarships without mention of disability.

We can’t readily point to current architects with disabilities as an example of success either. Why? Because we don’t know how many practicing architects with a disability exist or who they are. Diversity data exists on other underrepresented groups, but professional groups within our community have not chosen to ask about our minority representation.

Yes, I have a stake in this issue. But here’s my truth: I am passionate about good design. What is good design? Accessible design that allows all users to participate fully in the site experience.

In practice, great design is the product of a diverse team that understands the needs of people of all abilities. Today, a firm wouldn’t dream of designing a project that serves the needs of a marginalized community without involving people from that community. Yet firms make decisions every day about inclusive design without the benefit of having professionals with different abilities share their expertise. I have seen outcomes soar with the input of talented people with a unique perspective. Simply complying with accessibility regulations doesn’t provide the same level of nuanced design.

In the name of great design, are we willing to intentionally shift our professional culture to provide significant support to prospective architects with different abilities?

It has been almost 30 years since the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act—the most impactful civil rights law that affects the work of architects—but people with disabilities have yet to be invited to the professional table. When I meet young people who have grown up with a disability, I am often struck by their problem-solving capacity: Years spent finding workarounds for everyday barriers develops creative muscle, and not tapping into this creativity is a loss for all.

It’s time we name the real roadblock for students with disabilities considering architecture as a career: academic and professional stereotyping and discrimination, and omission from diversity programs in the industry.

In the name of great design, are we willing to intentionally shift our professional culture to provide significant outreach, accommodation, scholarships, and career support to prospective architects with different abilities?

Within the disability community, we often say, “Nothing about us without us.” Those words communicate our desire to be active participants in the decision-making process. Now is the time to challenge our profession on this issue of inclusion. Together, we—AIA components as well as firms, architecture schools, and vocational centers—have the power to make this happen.

It starts with visibility.

As is true of all people historically discouraged from joining a profession for any number of reasons, seeing a person who “looks like you” doing a job can make all the difference. In this case, it might even give students with disabilities “permission” to dream of being an architect.

This is not hard. It’s as easy as accepting the challenge of full inclusion, and then following through with outreach, scholarships, and support as if our profession depends on it.

Want to hear Karen Braitmayer speak more about the roadblocks people with disabilities face in the architecture profession? Listen to ARCHITECT's podcast episode 40: "The Need for Architecture That Enables, Not Disables."

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