Brittany Perez is the Director for Outreach and Engagement at UB’s Center for Inclusive Design and Environmental Access (IDEA Center), a globally recognized organization committed to creating and implementing inclusive design policies, practices, environments, and products. The group advocates for inclusive design (also called universal design), a design approach “grounded in the belief that the broad range of human ability is ordinary, not special.” Universal design address barriers of those usually excluded from the design process, such as people with disabilities, older adults, and children. We asked a Brittany about her work at the IDEA Center and how it transects with transportation system design.

What are common environmental barriers for people who have a disability? How does the IDEA Center work to address these issues?

This is a big question. The way we think about disability is through a social/environmental lens – the design of the physical environment and/or social structures can be enabling or disabling for people, it’s not necessarily about a specific health condition or limitation. When we think about the sidewalk, barriers like cracks, uneven pavement, or lack of curb cuts can create challenges or impasses for people who use wheelchairs, walkers, parents pushing strollers, dragging luggage, people with vision impairments, kids on scooters, etc. It’s not really about the person using the sidewalk, the issue is the design or barrier in the sidewalk itself (possibly even the lack of sidewalks!). If the sidewalk was designed well and well-maintained, everyone would be able to use it. And, it’s not just about physical access and mobility, but thinking about wayfinding and signage, communication, and cognition as well. The way we approach design can impact someone’s ability to fully participate in various live, work, play activities. At the IDEA Center, we use the terms inclusive design, or universal design, to describe a design process that enables people by thinking about human performance, health and wellness, and social participation. We advocate for the adoption of inclusive design practices instead of just meeting the minimum ADA standards, which are often inadequate and don’t meet the needs of a broad population. Inclusive design overlaps a lot with other healthy community initiatives like increasing walkability, adoption of Complete Streets policies, transportation access & connectivity, or designing housing where people can choose to live to an old adult age. Our team is working to provide research evidence for inclusive design and educate and train designers, policy makers, and other community organizations on inclusive design practices. I better stop here because I could go on for days…

What is your role at the IDEA center? What inspired you to do this work?

At the IDEA Center, I am the Director for Outreach and Engagement. I am involved in our research programs on universal design in the built environment and public transportation, and I work to increase our partnerships with community organizations and initiatives to increase awareness and adoption of universal design practices. I am also an occupational therapist. OTs are problem solvers. We work with people to develop solutions together for participating in different activities ranging from the everyday things we take for granted, like brushing your teeth or using the toilet, to school, work, or recreational activities as well. The way we do this is by analyzing a person, their environment, and their goals or things they want to do (their occupations!). I’m really interested in how OTs can do this work on a community or population scale, which is what interested me in universal design in the first place. The IDEA Center is the leading research center doing this work, and I wanted to see how OTs could work with other professionals like architects, urban planners, and engineers who are working to help people in the same ways.

How can the greater community be advocates for your work and inclusive design?

I think the biggest thing is learning about and getting to know lots of different people. When we begin to see inside or understand other people’s life experiences or share our own, then we can begin to see that we all have different needs from our environments. Inclusive design is not just design for disabilities. Inclusive design policies and strategies benefit us all. My research mentor in grad school and I used to talk about how we would both appreciate a similar kitchen design – he was a power wheelchair user and I stand no taller than 4’11. Or, think about traveling to a new place, everyone benefits when wayfinding information on public transportation is easy to find and understand – helpful for visitors, people who don’t speak the same languages, people with sensory impairments, people using public transit for the first time, everyone! Advocacy for inclusive design needs to happen from the bottom up and top down. We, as a community, need to demand inclusive design in our public buildings and spaces, pedestrian infrastructure, schools, and workplaces. We can help educate policy makers, designers, funders, electeds, developers, etc. about inclusive design so that we can have better futures. But, it also needs to come from the top – we need to see inclusive design and similar strategies woven into policy and practice in order to receive federal, state, and local funding or tax benefits. Leadership at major places of employment, in the nonprofit sector, in healthcare, transportation, and government need to integrate inclusive design practice into the values and strategic planning of these organizations to enable investment and practice.

My co-worker at the IDEA Center likes to put like this – investment in inclusive design is a value judgment. People make value judgments on what materials to use or how a project will look, and sometimes these “values” are very expensive. When it comes to inclusive design and practice, the decision and investment should be easy. Investing in and prioritizing inclusive design speaks volumes about respecting the clients, constituents, or residents we serve as well.

What does a perfectly designed transportation system look like to you?

Let’s see – affordable (dare I say FREE), efficient, multi-modal, and far-reaching. No need to mention that obviously it would be designed in a way that enables everyone to use it equitably – none of the “some stations or stops are accessible” business. Public transportation would be the premier way to move in the ideal system and a national priority and pride. Two standout transportation systems I remember from traveling: Switzerland has a national system, SBB. Bus, trams, trains, and boats are all part of the system. You can purchase a pass that gives you access to all of them throughout the country, and benefits for accessory mobility services. Transportation options arrive frequently and nothing is ever late. It was incredible. More recently I traveled to Russia to present at an art museum on topics of increasing access to modern art in their museum. The Moscow and St. Petersburg Metro systems are mind-blowing! We were able to get everywhere we needed to go across each city quickly and reliably on the subways. You have to see how the underground stations are designed – palaces underground! Some of the deepest stations underground in the world. Again here, the key was you rarely waited more than 5 minutes for the next train (sometimes less than 90 seconds!), the fare is super affordable (especially with currency conversion), and the stations and trains were really clean. The system has daily ridership of 7 million people! I love trains, and learning the local train or subway system is one of my favorite things to do when I travel, bonus if I get to travel there by train.

How do you incorporate biking and active transportation into your lifestyle? Do you have any bike/active transportation-related goals?

I love riding my bike around town in the summer to run quick errands or meet up with friends. I am working on my commuting goals. I’d really like to be more active in my work commute, biking or taking the train when I can since I work on UB South Campus. It gets tricky with time efficiency and safety when I have meetings all over town and outside the city during the work day. Some places I go are not safe traffic routes for cycling or walking either. Also, I try to maintain a somewhat presentable look at work – I haven’t mastered the sweaty, professional-chic look yet, but open to tips! Being more active physically active is an ongoing goal for me, and active transportation choices would really help me, so I continue to work on this. In the winter, however, not sure this Florida girl will ever be caught on her bike, brr! Year-round cyclists are bad-ass and have my respect for sure.

You helped with the womxn’s bike fest last year—what interested you in that event?

I wanted to help out with the womxn’s bike fest because I loved the idea to make bicycling more approachable and inclusive. I have a lot of friends who ride as their main mode of transportation, and others who don’t ride at all. I fall somewhere in the middle – more fair-weather commuting and bicycling in my neighborhood – so the idea of having time and space to learn from more experienced cyclists and ask the simple questions appealed to me. There were great people on the planning team too, so I thought it would be fun to get involved. I ended up missing the actual event because my cat, Monkey, was really sick. Hopefully, I’ll make it to the next one!