The Invisible Disabled

Sept. 6, 2006
By Robert Wright, FASID
Why designing for the elderly is about to change.

Few pieces of legislation have impacted the practice of interior design as much as the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Since its passage in 1990, it has defined the standard for accessibility in commercial and public spaces and has also influenced accessibility design in residential environments. Through its various manifestations, such as wheel chair accessibility in public restrooms, Braille text in elevators, and ramps and curb cuts, this legislation has raised public awareness about the needs of disabled persons and how they can be accommodated through design solutions.

Despite these advances, the ADA has yet to be implemented to the full scope of its language. This is especially true in regards to the elderly—many of whom have two or three chronic conditions that routinely interfere with activities of daily living (ADLs), thus classifying them as disabled under the ADA. Older individuals who are dependent upon a walker, cane or motorized scooter, or who suffer from macular degeneration or age-related hearing loss are often not part of the equation when accommodations are planned in public places. Perhaps it is because we tend to regard these individuals as elderly rather than as disabled—having essentially neglected them up until now. Or perhaps it's because, in our youth-oriented and independent-minded culture, the elderly themselves prefer to compensate for their conditions rather than be seen as weakened in some way. Whatever the case, the fact remains that millions of older Americans are currently considered "disabled" within the language of the ADA due to limitations in mobility, sight and/or hearing, as well as intellectual or cognitive impairments, such as dementia and Alzheimer's disease. They are the "invisible disabled"— their disabilities obscured by stereotypes of aging and also through their own efforts to "make do." And although the ADA encompasses them, for the most part many elderly do not benefit from its protections.

But for how much longer?

The older population, as we are all aware, is growing substantially larger each year. By the year 2030, when the last members of the baby boomer generation will have turned 65, one in five Americans will be 65 or older. Given the demands that the boomers have placed upon every other institution through which they have passed, it is unlikely that they will not insist upon the accommodations required by the ADA. Rather than give up some of their independence or limiting their scope of activities, they will look to the law, technology and designers to create accessible, accommodating and aesthetically pleasing homes, restaurants, hotels, movie theaters, shopping malls, museums, resorts and other places where they can lead active, enjoyable and fulfilling lives. Having, in many cases, cared for parents who lived well into their 80s and beyond, they will demand a higher level of healthcare, including more home-like surroundings and more care options in the home. Those who choose to remain in the workforce may require additional accommodations for diminishing eyesight, hearing, strength, flexibility and mobility—all the results of normal aging.

These changes will have a profound impact on the work performed by interior designers. Many existing private and public spaces, both residential and commercial, will need to be altered to accommodate the substantially larger numbers of persons with one or more physical or cognitive limitations or impairments. New construction will need to anticipate and plan for these accommodations. Thus, designing for elderly persons and/or persons with disabilities—once a more specialized area of design—is becoming a practice that will likely impact most designers at some point in their career.

To help prepare designers for these changes, ASID has recently released a new publication, Designing for the Elderly Population: The Americans with Disabilities Act and Its Implications for an Aging America. Written by environmental psychologist and design educator DAK (David Alan) Kopec, Ph.D., it examines those aspects of the ADA that relate to the needs of the elderly and how they are to be accommodated through design solutions. It also discusses changing attitudes toward disabled persons and the elderly—placing them within the larger context of demographic shifts and the civil rights movements of the last 100 years, and shows how the concerns of these two populations will converge in the coming decades. Applying these concepts to practice, this publication addresses the designer's role in developing solutions that anticipate and meet the needs of our aging citizens without drawing unnecessary attention to their disability. Whether your projects are commercial or residential, you will find information and insight that will aid your designs.

The ADA and the Americans with Disabilities Act Accessibility Guidelines (ADAAG) are far from perfect, both as a guide to designing for persons with disabilities and as a clear standard for designers to follow. Their intent, after all, was to set only minimum standards, not best practices. As designers, we can go well beyond the ADA to ensure that the spaces we design can be accessed and enjoyed by all, regardless of age or ability. We have many tools at our disposal to do so, including the principles of universal design. There is no need for elderly persons to live in denial of their disabilities or to feel excluded from many of the activities most of us take for granted—especially if the exclusion is the result of inaccessible or inhospitable environments. We do not have to wait for the boomers to start demanding their rights. We can choose instead to lead this social change and demonstrate the benefit of good design, and in so doing give added value to our clients.

For more information about Designing for the Elderly Population, visit the Aging in Place Resource Center on the ASID Web site at

  • ASID president Robert Wright, FASID, is an award-winning interior designer, with a focus on office and residential design. He is a principal of Bast/Wright Interiors Inc. in San Diego, CA. ASID staff can be reached at (202) 546-3480 or [email protected], and on the Web at

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