Latvia, Macedonia, Serbia
Over four excursions as part of the United States Embassy Speaker Program, I had the opportunity to speak with faculty and students at over a dozen universities about the importance of universal design. I became aware through this travel of the need for basic regulations, realizing that without simple codified laws to govern the design of facilities, the building industry remains uncontrolled and irrelevant to the needs of the population. They work instead based on financial gain and lack any consideration for the welfare of the population or even the workers employed by their own projects. There is a definite need for basic governance to protect the health, safety, and welfare of citizens at a global level, and we easily take for granted our governance through licensure and liability proceedings in the design and construction industries. The faculty I addressed are aware of this need, but have found it difficult to enact the necessary steps due to the speed of recent construction and the slowed progress of the political atmosphere. For example, during my travel to Macedonia, accompanied by Mrs. Borka Taneska and Mrs. Amy Storrow, I visited the Dimitar Vlahov, which is a state-run school for the blind that shelters a variety of children ranging in age from middle school to teenagers. This school faces a large number of barriers, from economic to physical. The facilities clearly are in need of financial assistance to properly house and care for the variety of visual and physical limitations the students possess. The facilities were not accessible for wheelchair use and barely navigable for children with low-vision needs. Facilities such as these would not be utilized in any fashion for teaching in the United States, and, needless to say, after this visit my emotions were difficult to contain.
I have also had the pleasure of sharing my views on nationally broadcasted radio and television during my travels, appearing on a live morning broadcast from A1 television (Macedonia’s version of Good Morning America), and more currently on Asperions video series in Serbia. Through my presentations and discussions with local architects, community leaders, and everyday people at the American Corners, I realized that there is much for American architects and students to do and share with world—but even more to learn from it. The need to provide access to facilities exists everywhere; so does the need for education of the design community as to what works best in providing accessible solutions; and the need for assistance to create the legislation that protects the future health, safety, and welfare of people everywhere. I found that with each visit the professionals and the communities were grateful for the opportunity to have someone share the advancements in universal design and accessibility in the states, and the efforts of the State Department to ensure that a wide variety of people are exposed to the awareness that comes from a broader design message. It is an important first step, one that can now be followed with collaboration between countries, and one that will hopefully introduce changes in the built environment, making it better for people with a variety of physical abilities.