When I severely broke my ankle last June, my autonomy was stripped in one fateful fall. On crutches, I couldn’t get a glass of water by myself unless I wanted to drink it in front of the fridge. I wasn’t able to shower alone or standing up. In addition to completely relying on others to perform the most mundane of tasks, any inanimate aid I used to help me get through the day looked like zero effort had gone into its design or construction.
Take, for example, a plastic stool I used for bathing. I borrowed it from my dad, who had it on hand because of a recent hip surgery. Aesthetically abhorrent (so different from the other design choices my husband and I have made in our home), flimsy in construction and coming with the instruction not to leave it in the tub after use because it could get mouldy, it was a constant reminder that I was not functioning as I usually do.
Such concessions are a reality for so many people, whether they’re in temporary situations like mine, one of the 6.2 million Canadians living with a disability, or counted as one-in-five people in this country at least 65 years of age, a number that is forecast to grow from 18.8 per cent of the population in 2022 to 22.5 per cent by 2030.
Addressing the accessible design needs of so many people above-and-beyond mere functionality is still in a very nascent stage. Pottery Barn released an Accessible Home collection in the U.S. last year, which includes a leather recliner with a powerlift function that allows users to sit down and get out of the chair more easily. There is also a modular oak veneer desk that complies with the Americans With Disabilities Act and can accommodate some wheelchair styles. But most mass manufacturers and small-scale studios haven’t attempted to reach the considerable swath of consumers searching for “assistive” items that won’t make one’s living space look like a hospital. Why is there such a dearth of choice when it comes to creating accessible interiors?
British-based entrepreneur James Taylor found himself asking a similar question after becoming a wheelchair user. Having endured a spinal injury during a diving accident, Taylor, who has a finance background, soon saw his living situation transform into a clinical space. The lack of choice in the items that allowed him to retain a sense of autonomy, safety and personal style inspired him to start Motionspot with best friend Ed Warner.
“I’m a big believer that if you get the environment right for people, you can really positively impact cognitive and physical health,” Warner says. When he and Taylor launched their company more than a decade ago, they realized that most assistive products and accessible spaces had been designed purely for function.
In addition to its bathroom product range under the brand name Fine & Able, Motionspot offers design services for a variety of clients from residential, retail, hospitality and rental-home projects to later living and student accommodations. For the Hotel Brooklyn in Manchester, they designed bathrooms with fold-up shower seats and removable support rails and selected tiles in on-trend terrazzo that minimize glare and are also fully slip-resistant. The Missy’s House project in Northamptonshire, England, an endeavour to build a holiday rental-home experience better suited to wheelchair users, saw Motionspot create a trio of tony bathrooms; the abode also boasts a handsome navy kitchen with lower counter heights.
Unlike what we’ve come to expect of accessible interiors, these splashy spaces would find themselves more at home in the pages of a decor magazine than a fracture clinic or long-term care facility. “I just couldn’t understand that,” Warner says of how the industry was completely ignoring a person’s tastes and desires. “I also knew there was a big market of people who were getting older and wanted their homes to look great. And they want to travel like anyone else and use public spaces like anyone else. The more I started to look into it, the more I realized there was an amazing opportunity to launch a business that 100 per cent specializes in this.”
As a testament to the success of Warner’s hypothesis, Motionspot recently opened an office in Florida, enabling the company to work with clients across North America. Warner highlights that Fine & Able started with a bathroom focus because it’s where people typically want the most independence, and it’s also where “the biggest design crimes tend to happen.” He adds that in addition to removable technology, such as grab bars that can be adjusted as needed, broader household considerations like lighting (for changes in vision) and carpeting and flooring (for safety when using devices like a walker or wheelchair) are other key areas of focus.
One of Motionspot’s senior inclusive designers, Kathryn Aedy, was inspired to enter the field of accessible design through friendships with someone who is blind and a university classmate with cerebral palsy. Their unique needs within the disability community still resonate with Aedy as she approaches her work.
“When it comes to comparing accessible design, inclusive design and universal design, I think the words can often be conflated,” she says. “When we’re talking about inclusive design, we’re talking about being able to have the widest range of personalization possible.”
Vancouver-based architect Annie Boivin echoes this idea. “Access needs shouldn’t be an afterthought,” she says. “Rather, they have the potential to fundamentally change the way we think about design and push it in a direction of a more radically inclusive solution. That being said, I don’t like the concept of universal design in the sense that it creates a blanket approach to disability – the idea that somehow there’s one solution that addresses all the needs.”
Boivin, who is a wheelchair user, works at the firm Perkins & Will and notes that when it comes to the creation of accessible spaces and assistive products, there are traditionally two models of looking at disability and how it affects design processes.
“There’s the medical model of disability, which is the idea that somehow disability entails illness,” Boivin says. “And the social model is thinking of disability as inability; putting someone in the position of struggle.” Ableist at their core, these concepts ultimately imply that assistive products exist merely to allow the user to live as they need to, not as they choose.
When Sky Oestreicher speaks about their experience with disability, including the effects of fibromyalgia and Lyme disease, they emphasize that people who live with symptoms such as muscle soreness and fatigue, sensory sensitivities and neurodiversity “constantly have to plan, make trade-offs and make decisions about what they have to give up. The big thing about the disability experience that I’ve learned is that we are always running on limited resources compared to how the world is expected to work.”
Having recently moved into their own apartment in Montreal after a period living with their parents as life recalibrated, Oestreicher, who uses the pronoun they, highlights a couple of musts in their dwelling these days. Aside from soft lighting (i.e. no overhead lights), they also keep a counter-height stool in the kitchen so they can sit to prepare meals. And having access to an outdoor space has been a boon. “If I’m having a sensory overload or even a cognitive brain fog day where I’m really confused, going out and being able to sit in the grass is incredibly beneficial,” they say.
For former interior designer Ray Simanavicius and his nonagenarian mother, Hilda, the feeling of disappointment was tangible as they oversaw the installation of several assistive products in Hilda’s residences, including a chair lift, grab bars and a walk-in shower. Ray says that what’s been on the market is “so utilitarian looking,” adding there’s a distinct contrast to the thoughtfully curated objects within the condo they now share in Toronto’s west end. “We have a beautifully decorated home, with all of mum’s antiques,” he says. “It makes you feel like what you deserve is just ‘good enough,’ ” adds Hilda.
Industrial designer Kaly Ryan was motivated by a similar sentiment when she launched Capella Design in the fall. As her grandfather’s home became peppered with assistive devices, Ryan’s family found the scarcity of product offerings frustrating. Now, her Vancouver-based company offers a dashing shower stool, with plans for more products in the works.
“The ethos that I started this with is that everything needs to be empowering,” Ryan says. “It needs to feel stylish – you need to want it in your house. And sustainability is the bottom line, because we can’t put more stuff on the earth without some responsibility.” Ryan consults with focus groups and an occupational therapist on her product design to ensure that insight from potential customers is considered.
Capella Design’s Lotic shower stool – crafted in small-batches from waterproof, anti-bacterial, mould/mildew-resistant and rust-free materials including a recycled wood composite seat – comes in several styles including a simulated terrazzo finish. With a look that would stand out in any tony design shop window, it made a splash during its Interior Design Show debut in Toronto in January.
Noting that the stool, which was designed in collaboration with Willow & Stump Design Co., can be repaired and recycled, Ryan acknowledges that its price – which starts at $645 – isn’t a reality for everyone. As a way to mitigate this, she donates a portion of proceeds from sales to a senior-centric community organization. She notes that the price point is affected by sourcing ethically made materials as well as the small scale of her business, but adds that as she’s able to expand her company and its offerings, there’s potential to make Capella Design’s pieces more attainable cost-wise.
In the long term, what will make accessible design more accessible itself is more brands like Pottery Barn and independent entrepreneurs like Ryan hearing and meeting the demand for stylish assistive products. Material innovation and economies of scale can only gain traction in an all-in movement where making do simply won’t do any longer.