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Some of the artwork done by artists with Down syndrome and autism at the creative firm La Casa de Carlota.

La Casa de Carlota

How can a city include everyone? Only if it’s designed by a diverse set of minds.

That’s the theme of a film screening and discussion this weekend, and it’s an argument that will become louder in the next generation, as universal design comes to shape our built environments and other aspects of our lives.

How so? In short, governments and the design professions are rapidly embracing broader ideas about how places, objects and digital systems should function. People with disabilities were often marginalized, legally and culturally; that’s changing, even as more people live longer lives and join the ranks of those with disabilities. This represents a massive and urgent challenge for architects and designers, from public washrooms to app design.

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“We’re at a tipping point,” says Jennifer Hiseler, an accessibility specialist with the Human Space studio at Quadrangle Architects. “Professionals may not have received training in these issues, but that’s changing very quickly.”

Accessibility, which was once synonymous with ramps for people in wheelchairs, is evolving into a field that aspires to make every place, and every experience, inclusive of everyone.

The documentary Design-Ability, which screens Sunday as part of the ReelAbilities Toronto festival, explores that theme. The film goes inside the creative agency La Casa de Carlota in Barcelona, which harnesses the skills of a creative team that includes people with Down syndrome and autism.

A still from the film Design-Ability. The creative firm La Casa de Carlota employs artists such as Odile, who has Down's syndrome, and autism.

Otoxo Productions

After the film, I will host a panel with Ms. Hiseler, physical-accessibility advocate Luke Anderson of StopGap and Misha Mykitiuk of digital-accessibility startup Abil.

In the film, we see a handful of artists at La Casa producing branding and packaging for the office’s corporate and institutional clients, working in paint, collage and drawing, and sharing a collective sensibility that is rough-edged, playful and at times surreal, evoking Basquiat or Warhol or Joseph Cornell.

The work matters to them. “Other people find disability hard to accept. … People often treat us like children,” says one of the group, Odile, who has Down syndrome. But disability, she explains, is “a way of being or doing that others don’t understand.”

But it matters to the business, too. In the film, José María Batalla, the studio’s principal, says that employing Odile and her colleagues isn’t “nice” but selfish. “They have an originality which, until now, nobody in the creative sector has utilized,” he says. “They teach us how to think differently. … We try to apply lateral thinking. They are lateral thinking.”

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Some of the artwork done by artists with Down's syndrome and autism at the creative firm La Casa de Carlota.

La Casa de Carlota

But go beyond an ad campaign or poster, and consider the designs that shape our lives: architecture, urban design. This is where accessibility is most familiar to people, in the form of devices – such as ramps – that open up spaces to people with disabilities. Here too, Ms. Hiseler says, varied perspectives are not just useful but critical. In her field, of the built environment, the conversation is often shaped by laws and other regulations that are inadequate or outdated.

“When an architect follows the building code, they may not have the insight that compliance” – following the rules to the letter – “may not meet full inclusion,” Ms. Hiseler says. In Ontario, the building code specifies particular dimensions to make a place accessible that are fine for people in wheelchairs but impassible for those in electric scooters.

The rules, as they stand today, are not adequate for everyone. That’s true despite the fact that the relevant legislation, of which Ontario’s 2005 Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act was a pioneer, is changing quickly to enforce higher standards. And many public institutions are moving toward an ideal of inclusion rather than accommodation. In other words, how do you make a place work so that nobody has to ask for special treatment?

“By including different perspectives,” Ms. Hiseler says, “by including people with disabilities as part of the work, it becomes less of a conversation about ‘How do we include those people?’ If you sit next to a colleague who uses a powered wheelchair, you have a real insight: This is about the person next to you.”

Designability e-design-exchange-tickets-45083483914" title="" class="">screens 1 p.m. Sunday at the Design Exchange (234 Bay Street). reelabilities.org/toronto

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