From Accessibility to Inclusivity

Driving Change Towards Inclusive Landscape Design for Those With Disabilities

According to Audrey Wilke, recent graduate in Landscape Architecture, the Social Theory of Disability helped her reconceptualize her own dyslexia, as well as the disabilities of others. The theory states that disability is not a fault within a person, but is rather the result of a society not being built for everyone. “So there’s nothing wrong with the way I think or the way my brain functions,” said Wilke, “but the problem comes when everything is taught to a different way of learning or a different brain structure. The problem isn’t someone using a wheelchair, the problem is the building that doesn't have stairs or the cobblestone paving that is difficult to navigate.” This revelation motivated Wilke to become an advocate for others with disabilities the way she has had to advocate for herself.

Wilke is fighting to change the designer mindset from accessibility to a truly inclusive user experience that considers the perspectives of all those using outdoor spaces, including those with disabilities. The Landscape Architecture Foundation recently named Wilke as an Olmsted Scholar, one of only eight students to receive this top national honor. While the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) has set minimum standards for accessibility, Wilke is using her award funds to create a comprehensive guide for disability-inclusive landscape design. Wilke has seen firsthand as a student with dyslexia how her disability can actually be an advantage as a designer, and how a better understanding of all disability types can help future designers produce more inclusive and welcoming work.

“I want to have some part in creating landscapes that are more equitable, especially for people with disabilities,” said Wilke. “Disability is actually the largest minority group, but it’s often forgotten or not thought of that way. People talk a lot about ADA compliance, but never about user experience. Unless you have that experience of having to go around the side of a beautiful outdoor space to find a ramp and feeling forgotten, it won’t be the first thing you think about. I want to draw that to designers' attention more broadly because I don’t think it will change unless someone riles up some change—it’s not just going to happen on its own.”

To help inspire this change, Wilke decided that when applying for the Olmsted Scholars Program, she would share her experiences as a dyslexic student while also highlighting the many strengths that being dyslexic has given her as a designer. “Landscape architecture is not only something I love for the impact on people’s lives and the time outdoors, but it actually works a lot better with my brain,” explained Wilke. “Dyslexics often struggle with memorization which is the basis of a lot of traditional education programs, but landscape architecture teaches concepts and how to apply them. Another strength is that I have an easier time with spatial reasoning and visualizing things, and that’s been really helpful for design. I would struggle in the lower level classes, but once we got to more conceptual work, I can do it easier than some of my classmates, so it’s interesting to see that you have to put effort into the opposite areas.”

Wilke says there are guides in landscape architecture for ecology and stormwater, so a guide for disability-inclusive design could make a difference in the industry. She is currently interviewing people in the disability community to learn from their experiences so that designers can be better informed of the needs across the many categories of disability.

“Difference in texture is really good for people with visual impairments, but bumpy textures can be hard for people with knee scooters,” explained Wilke. “And people’s experiences when they are on the autism spectrum are completely different. When plants are really fragrant, it can be overwhelming. Or if a water feature dominates the space, people can’t find a less overwhelming spot to take a break. It goes against design principles that you’re taught in school because fragrance gardens or water features relax a lot of people, but for some it is their worst nightmare.”

In addition to working as an apprentice landscape architect after graduating in Spring 2020 and on the disability-inclusive design guide, Wilke is still an active member of the President’s Commission on Disability Issues (PCDI) Student Advisory Committee (SAC), the primary advocacy organization for disabled people at UMD.

“People are genuinely interested in the work that I’m doing, and that’s incredibly touching,” said Wilke.

“Sometimes on the disability board, we are fighting this fight and it can feel like change comes so slowly. But to see people in the landscape architecture community taking notice with this award, and having the support of my professors in Landscape Architecture for this work has been really touching. It’s a genuine honor.”

By Samantha Watters