Depth in Accessible Interior Design

Through personal experience I have recently discovered a facet to interior design for accessibility that is widespread, yet nearly unacknowledged. As an industry we tend to think of accessible issues as "Wheelchair" issues or "Impairment of the senses" issues. I believe as an industry we could be looking a little deeper into who will utilize a space to optimize the functionality of the design.


In the last several weeks I have experienced a medical condition new to me. Due to years in construction, several unfortunate incidents with ill-tempered, four-legged transportation, and numerous falls I find myself with what is commonly known as a, "Bad lower back". Triggered by improper form while lifting something heavy, the deterioration of vertebrae and discs has resulted in compression of the sciatic nerve on my left side. This condition causes muscle cramping and nerve pain down that leg - a sensation not unlike receiving a root canal starting at the lower back and extending to the left ankle, performed by a chimpanzee wielding an electric drill equipped with a 3/8 inch, carbide-tipped masonry bit. Standing is possible only for a limited time. Sitting in a standard chair is out of the question. The pain is immediate and severe, and only way to relieve that pain is to lie flat and allow the compression to ease. The relief can be  instantaneous.


In the process of researching and seeking a cure I have learned that more than 90 percent of Americans will experience this condition in their lifetimes, and many will experience it more than once. Over 90 percent! So this is not just me whining, but rather, a very common malady.


Virtually everywhere I go (including hospital and physician's waiting rooms and the spinal center I visited) one must lie down on the well travelled floor to survive the "waiting". Lovely chairs and couches are prevalent in waiting rooms, lobbies, airport gates and lounges, etc. There are planters, gardens, even children's furniture, but no extended horizontal seating. In my own conversations with medical personnel they note that many people employ some type of contortion on the "standard" furniture to manage their pain while waiting, yet the waiting rooms are equipped with standard chairs, coffee tables, etc. Herein lies our challenge in interior design.


How about a flat bench folks? How about a long, well made flat seating surface around six feet long, and maybe even a little wider than standard chair depth? It could have cushions, but please, no armrests. Most people would choose the cushy chairs, but for those 90 percenters who have a need to relieve a little excruciating pain, the flat bench is a lifesaver. These benches could be incorporated into the most clever and artistic of interior designs, would serve as perfectly fine seating for the general public, and would greatly reduce the moaning and sobbing sounds we all find so disturbing in lobbies and waiting rooms. Compared to chairs and couches, flat benches are relatively inexpensive, yet can still be stylish.


Since this is such a common and serious condition, perhaps some signage over the benches would be in order...something showing a reclining person with sparks or flames coming from their back, and with a caption such as, "Please yield to those in pain". The odds dictate that most interior designers would one day benefit from this small yet compassionate design detail.


This personal discovery has caused me to wonder how many other very common conditions could be addressed with very simple solutions. The best design will address the most acute of the user's needs. It should be a continual, industry-wide challenge to reach that depth of design.

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