Center for Universal Design
Raleigh, North Carolina
Ron Mace, creator of the term "universal design," was an articulate architect and determined advocate who influenced international thinking about design. For most of his life he used a wheelchair and understood what it was to try to participate in a world that was not designed to include him. Ron was the consummate champion for accessible and universal design, and the impact of his work will be felt for generations to come. Interviews with his colleagues provided much of the following detail about his early years.
"Universal design seeks to encourage attractive, marketable products that are more usable by everyone. It is design for the built environment and consumer products for a very broad definition of user."
- Ron Mace
Beginning in the early 1970s, Ron created opportunities to demonstrate exemplary accessible design and seized every occasion to educate architects. His illustrated books put a human face on technical standards, and he advocated for creative design practices as well as enlightened public policy. His architectural and product designs, books, drawings, photographs, and students are a legacy that will continue to change the world.
When he died suddenly in June 1998, Ron had just experienced the extraordinary respect and enthusiasm of the more than 450 people from nineteen countries who participated in the First International Conference on Universal Design. He could see that he had inspired a growing international movement. In his plenary talk at the conference he explained, "Universal design seeks to encourage attractive, marketable products that are more usable by everyone. It is design for the built environment and consumer products for a very broad definition of user."
Ron's work at the Center for Universal Design addressed the broadest definition of user. The team that he directed, which included people he had mentored over many years, produced product designs, home plans, publications, and videotapes that exemplified his philosophy. When he died, the easy-to-use thermostat was being considered for a patent; the conceptual design of a multi-option bathing system with a folding floor was being shown to manufacturers; Removing Barriers to Health Care, a Guide for Health Professionals was about to be released; the Principles of Universal Design and their performance-based criteria were being used worldwide; the 21st Century Home concept drawing for the universally usable home had recently been published in the Wall Street Journal; Ron had just met with a consultant from the World Bank to explain his affordable housing solutions.
When Ron was five years old, his father brought the family from New Jersey to Winston-Salem, North Carolina. Ron and his father built soapbox derby carts together, and Ron entered model airplane competitions with his older brother. "He had an innate ability to make things. He was always an inventor and builder," recalls Joy Weeber, a disability advocate and the life partner with whom Ron shared his last four years.
At the age of nine, in 1950, Ron contracted polio and spent a year in the hospital. The doctors told his parents that they should put him in an institution, but they were determined that Ron be at home and remain part of the community. Without any outside support, and with limited modifications, Ron's parents managed. They hauled him up and down the stairs in elementary school, high school, and college. Ron built everything he needed, including his bed and a rolling stool to get to the toilet. When he couldn't get through the bathroom doors in his wheelchair, Ron designed and welded a metal stool on wheels that got him through the narrow door.
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He was always confident in his convictions. "It's the set of the soul that determines the goal" was the quote he selected for his high school yearbook. He wanted to become an architect, and applied to the School of Design at North Carolina State University (NCSU). He wrote about that experience in a paper presented at the National Forum on Careers in the Arts in June 1998. "When I applied to architecture school, I was told by the dean not to try. He felt that a person with a disability could not make it through the program, and did not have any business trying. He reasoned that I could never do the work successfully nor find and maintain a job. I have no idea what experience he had with anyone else with or without a disability upon which to base such strong opinions. I completed school as a result of the tenacity of my family. They devoted a large portion of their lives for the six years I was in school to ensure that I was carried whenever necessary through an inaccessible, and even hostile, environment. There was neither assistance nor accommodation made. It was difficult, but not impossible to successfully complete the program. I entered my field before physical and programmatic access were required and discrimination prohibited, before any assistance or advanced technology could be of help. This situation has radically improved."
Because there weren't any accessible dormitories, Ron and his mother rented a trailer and moved to Raleigh so she could help him. The design studios were inaccessible, and he did most of his projects in the trailer, missing much of the collegial atmosphere that is so much a part of studio experience.
After graduation, Ron was the last of his classmates to find the essential architectural internship needed to become a licensed architect. It was then he realized that he was being discriminated against. When a firm in Greensboro, North Carolina, finally hired him, and he couldn't find any accessible housing in the town, he commuted from his parents' home in Winston-Salem. It was an excellent job; the principals of the firm gave him an unusual amount of responsibility, allowing him to work on large design projects. Ron was in charge of the design for the Greensboro Civic Center while most of his contemporaries were doing lower-level tasks that were more common for architectural interns.
Ron was finishing his internship in Greensboro in 1972 when Charles Bell, a friend and colleague, approached him to teach in a new architectural technology program at Fayetteville Technical Institute (now Fayetteville Community College). Bell, who will retire in 2002 after thirty-two years of teaching, remembers that Ron jumped at the offer. "This was a chance for him to get an apartment in Fayetteville and finally live on his own."
"Ron was very excited about teaching drafting," explained Bill Laslett, an architect in Fayetteville who worked with Ron at the same time. "He thought he could train draftsmen to carry the message of access into the design offices." Ron was part of a group of architects who frequently met together in Fayetteville. "There was great camaraderie, which fostered and helped his thinking. It was never Ron against the profession. We thought that the term 'accessible design' would disappear and would just become part of good, standard design."
During this time, he courted and married Lockhart Follin, who was pursuing her Ph.D. at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Lockhart always credited Ron with helping her to see beyond the limited confines of a society life that seemed to ignore the real problems of the world. Their respect and admiration were mutual, and they supported each other in many ways. Lockhart died in 1992.
While Ron was still teaching at Fayetteville, important changes were taking place in North Carolina state government. Kern Church, retired deputy commissioner and secretary to the Building Code Council, and John Dalrymple, assistant director for the Independent Living Rehabilitation Program, NC Division of Vocational Rehabilitation Services, described their experience and Ron's role in changing the North Carolina building code, which became a national model.
At the time, Dalrymple was the vice-chair of the Governor's Study Committee on Architectural Barriers. He recalls, "We were concerned about people who couldn't get jobs because of access, and we heard about this architect at Fayetteville Tech. We invited Ron to be our advisor. For the first time, when we sat down with builders and they brought up problems, we had an articulate, knowledgeable architect to show them how to do it." Church recalls, "I was head engineer for the NC building code when some leading citizens came into my office. They were doctors, lawyers, and businessmen who were handicapped, asking for access so they could get into buildings. They said, 'We don't want to be supported by the tax payers-we want to pay taxes.' Ron was at the meeting; he was very practical, he knew what could be done and what couldn't. Lots of legislators got into it along with the attorney general's office. They came to us to write a new building code, and we held many hearings." Church explained that their committee wrote the access provisions of the code. "After we printed the code, the architects were grumbling about how to comply when it was so hard to figure out what all those words really meant. The state got federal funding to produce an illustrated version of the code and hired Ron with the grant money to do the work."
"Ron was then living in an apartment in Fayetteville, working on the illustrated guidelines," said Bill Laslett. "He worked morning, noon, and night in a studio he had set up in his apartment. Betsy Laslett, who became the editor of the illustrated guidelines, jumped in to be Ron's assistant. Barrier Free Environments (BFE) came into being when we rented an office downtown and hired Michael Quarterman, one of the best students from Fayetteville Tech, to help."
Ron had involved his Fayetteville students in the North Carolina illustrated code project. Bell described how excited the students were to be doing this important groundbreaking work. "The students did the drawings that Ron had conceptualized to illustrate the code, to make it understandable. Later, we used the drawings to upgrade the school, making it fully accessible."
"After the illustrated guidelines came out we did the first slide show," said Betsy Laslett. "We had to show real people using the accessibility features to raise awareness and change attitudes about people with disabilities. Everyone in the office was always taking photographs."
Dalrymple said, "Once it was passed we had a tremendous educational job to train the building inspectors and the architects." "At the first training for architects at NCSU, Ron wouldn't let anyone help him. He had to do everything himself," Ken Church said. "He and his wife drove up in their van, put down their ramp, and rolled right up to the podium-it was great. After the training, the architects knew why they had to do this."
Ron provided a reality check to the "rampant myths of excessive costs" in the 1976 book Accessibility Modifications: Guidelines for Modifications to Existing Buildings. The unit costs came from an actual renovation project done in an old hospital. Ron's desire to provide readily available and affordable housing, grounded in his experience living in a trailer during college, soon meshed with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development's (HUD) interests in mobile homes. Cindy Crouse, an undergraduate at Saint Andrews Presbyterian College in North Carolina, pulled together the research for the HUD-funded mobile homes project at the college. Working with a new federal construction code for mobile homes, Ron designed adaptations to make used mobile homes accessible. Cindy, who lived in one of the adapted mobile homes, recalls, "I was able to cook for the first time in my life in the accessible kitchen. The height-adjustable bed made it possible for me to reach the top of a life-size painting that I couldn't reach from my wheelchair in the art studio."
The book that documented the research, Mobile Homes: Alternative Housing for the Handicapped, was the first book that Leslie Young worked on with Ron. "Ron was a wonderful mentor. He was willing to talk with you and make the most complex things understandable." Leslie, who worked with Ron for over twenty-five years, recalls that he was the happiest when he worked on a design that would make a difference for an individual person. "A unique cane handle designed so the cane could hang from a table when not in use is still in production. The tub/transfer seat won an industrial design award. He designed a space-saving single-user toilet room that became part of the North Carolina code and eventually became the national standard."
Leslie explained BFE's 1979 move from Fayetteville. Ron's wife, Lockhart, had been appointed by the governor to head the Governor's Advocacy and Protection Council for People with Disabilities. That inspired the move to the state capital in Raleigh, which coincided with the beginning of BFE's big national projects.
"Progressive Architecture magazine and the Bradley Corporation funded the mammoth seven-projector slide show on barrier-free design and the 1980 ANSI standards for workshops all over the country. We were also doing the 504 DREDF (Disability Rights Education Defense Foundation) trainings. That was an intensely exciting time. DREDF staff came to Raleigh to train us, and we did training of trainers programs in half the states. Ron would work so hard he would fall asleep at his desk. It was about this time that he started using a power chair, which gave him new-found freedom."
"Ron was tireless in his conviction that accessible design was the key to people living independently. I think what brought Ron and me together was a common belief that you could explain the complex nature of accessible design in a simple way using graphics and text," said Jim Bostrom, who worked at BFE in the 1980s and early 1990s. "Telling the story so that people with and without a technical background could understand was central to all our work." He had heard of Ron in the mid-1970s, "as the person who had the answers." But it wasn't until the United Nations conference in 1982 that they began to talk about working together. "There were several people around the country talking about the importance of accessible housing for community living. Ron became a key player in that effort. HUD also had some funding at the time and that's how the book Adaptable Housing came about. That publication broke a lot of ground at BFE in terms of collaboration and production. Then the National Institute on Disability and Rehabilitation Research funded the study and book, Less Restrictive Housing and later, the Center for Accessible Housing at North Carolina State. How unbelievably lucky I was to have been a part of a unique group at a very special time."
Ruth Lusher discovered Ron's wonderful sense of humor when they met in 1981, at a meeting on corporate responses to accessibility sponsored by the U.S. Access Board. Concerned that she would be the only person with a disability at the event because of prejudices that almost kept her away, she found Ron and Leslie setting up slides and was delighted that he was running the show. Ron chuckled and commiserated with her about the problems she encountered and then invited her to be on panel for a meeting of the Task Force on Life Safety, in Washington.
"He was on everything. If he wasn't running it, he was on the advisory board." Ron was also part of a small group of advocates who watched out for each other, personally and professionally. Phone calls in the middle of the night were common.
Ruth described what a gentle and effective facilitator he was. There were controversial problems with the proposed revisions to ANSI A117.1 -1977 that kept the standard from being approved. For the first time, proposed standards addressed accessibility features for kitchens, bathing facilities, elevators, and automatic doors, including requirements for an "accessible route" and for a standard toilet stall that allowed for a side transfer. Architects, builders, and manufacturers all had concerns. Ron was asked to meet with Ed Steinfeld, who had done the research, to "fix" the controversial provisions. They were able to resolve most of the conflicts, and the ANSI Committee approved and published the standard in 1980.
"In the heady 1980s, we worked on numerous publications funded by a range of sources. AARP's ECHO housing book, the Construction Specifier article on accessible products, and the National Organization on Disability's Disabled Citizens at the Polls all came out during that time. We worked together to get the adaptable Cardinal Industries house on the National Mall as part of a big event HUD was sponsoring." Ron wrote a public letter to HUD exposing groups that were using scare tactics to try to stop HUD's new Fair Housing Guidelines. His intervention helped spur the release of the guidelines, which contained requirements that assured minimum access in newly constructed multi-family housing. "Without Ron to debunk the naysayers, we might still be fighting that battle," Ruth says.
When asked, "what does the future hold ?" in a 1987 Progressive Architecture article, Ron's replied with a reminder and a challenge. "I'm very optimistic. I think we are ten, maybe twenty years away from where we will not have to talk about this as something special. It takes a long time to change attitudes and practice."
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In 1992, President Clinton honored Ron with a Distinguished Service Award for his work promoting the dignity, equality, independence, and employment of people with disabilities. The American Institute of Architects (AIA) awarded him two of its highest honors: the status of fellow in 1988 for his public service, and in 1996 the presidential citation, which noted, "He has used his gifts to insist that no one is free unless we accord each other dignity and celebrate as one our common humanity."
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