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Universal Soldier

Bob Topping is on the vanguard of a design frontier—making products and environments accessible to everyone

BY Suzanne Alyssa Andrew
Photography by Rachel Topping

One of your first projects as a student in Bob Topping’s universal design course is to explore the Sheridan College campus in suburban Toronto either in a wheelchair or wearing goggles that impair your vision. To find yourself stuck at the bottom of a flight of stairs or unable to navigate a long, echoing hallway, where every doorway is identical, is to discover serious design flaws. “There’s a moment of realization,” says Topping. “The students come back, and they’re enraged the environment is so inaccessible.”

Topping, a Toronto-based architect and design consultant, is Canada’s crusader for universal design—creating products and environments everyone can use. The concept applies to every discipline, from architecture to industrial design. For people with limited strength and mobility, there are curbless shower stalls, large-grip scissors and a kettle that rolls forward, no lifting required. Signs at Pearson International Airport’s Terminal 1 are bright, to aid visually impaired travellers.

Most objects and environments are designed for the prototypical user: a young, able-bodied male more than six feet tall. Even if you’re still young, an injury or pregnancy can make for tricky manoeuvring. The principles of universal design (established in the early ’90s by architect and designer Ron Mace at the Center for Universal Design in North Carolina) replace limited concepts like barrier-free design and designing for the disabled, accounting for the varying abilities of a wider range of people. And, unlike other design concepts, universal design principles are considered at the initial design stage, not as an afterthought.

Yet some designers consider it the “sensible shoes” of the design world and eschew Mace’s ideas in favour of pure aesthetics. “There’s a perception from the design community, particularly architects, that it’s going to have a detrimental effect on design quality,” says Topping. Too many designers think accessibility means sticking an unattractive ramp in front of a beautiful building, rather than integrating users’ needs into their initial plans. “If design is going to be successful,” he says, “it should be unobtrusive.”

Topping worked on the first major architecture project in Canada to incorporate universal design: the Air Canada Centre. The fact that its wide range of accommodating features aren’t noticeable is proof of its success. There are no ugly add-ons here. During the design phase in the early to mid-’90s, Topping’s team consulted with a wide range of people. Concession-stand counters were lowered by two inches, making them accessible to people in wheelchairs and those of shorter stature, including kids. And easy-to-access seating, with extra space for wheelchairs and walkers in almost every price range and level, means people with disabilities can choose to sit where they want.

Canadian designers are slow converts. While Topping continues to consult on new projects, including Toronto’s opera house, he’s the sole staffer at Sheridan College’s funding-challenged Universal Design Centre. He regularly speaks at conferences and events across the country, but he says universal design is a “tough sell,” even among his faculty colleagues.

Canada currently relies on human rights legislation to enforce accessibility standards because our building codes, according to Topping, are “woefully inadequate.” That will change soon, in Ontario at least, now that the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act has passed. New standards will apply to any organization offering services to the public—not just new construction, but existing buildings too. The bill will apply to anything defined as public space, including information technologies such as websites.

Topping is convinced widespread education is the clincher for universal design. Indeed, he finds the most enthusiasm for his ideas in his students. Several alum have developed their own successful businesses using the universal design principles they learned from Topping. “Students see it for what it is,” he says. “It just makes sense.”


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