Sam Mitchell graduated from Kansas State University with a masters in architecture and has about 10 years of professional experience. At age 13, she was diagnosed with a genetic eye disease called Stargardt disease, which affects her central vision.
Below you’ll find Sam’s interview discussing accessibility in design and working as a designer with a disability.
WHY IS ACCESSIBLE DESIGN IMPORTANT TO YOU?
Sam Mitchell: Accessible design is important to me because it directly affects how independently, confidently I can move through a space.
WHAT DO YOU PERSONALLY STRUGGLE WITH ON A DAY-TO-DAY BASIS?
Sam Mitchell: Two things come to mind. One is navigation and asking for help. As far as navigation, I operate pretty comfortably in the office once I get familiar and go off of a lot of memory, but if it’s something new it takes a lot of adjusting for me and always remembering I can always ask for help. It’s really important for me to know I don’t have to do it all on my own.
WHERE DO YOU SEE THE BIGGEST NEED FOR IMPROVEMENT IN ACCESSIBLE DESIGN?
Sam Mitchell: I think we all need to think inclusively. Everybody just wants to live their life and if we can accept and accommodate people and just let them feel comfortable in their own bodies with where they’re at and if we can do that through design then I think that’s a win.
WHERE DO YOU SEE THE GREATEST IMPROVEMENT?
Sam Mitchell: I think really playing with ways to include everyone. As accessible design started, we tried to really integrate it more and more in the beginning process and I think that’s fantastic rather than it being an afterthought.
WHAT SOME RESOURCES AND ORGANIZATIONS YOU WOULD LIKE OTHERS TO SUPPORT AND BE AWARE OF?
Sam Mitchell: Foundation Fighting Blindness is a great organization that covers all kinds of eye diseases and they do fundraising to do research and they’ve really come a long ways. Their medical research, even their local chapters, KC has one, and they have a vision walk each year and I’ve participated in that before and raised money. As far as social media, there is Two Blind Bothers who both have the same eye condition as I do, and they realized they wanted to design clothes based on how they feel. I believe they’re also all sewn by the visually impaired and all the proceeds go to the Foundation Fighting Blindness for a cure for blindness. I have also used Alphapointe between high school and college and spent the week days and they help teach you how to cook, use technology, how to navigate and make sure you’re ready for college and to be on my own.
HOW HAS YOUR EXPERIENCE AFFECTED THE WAY YOU DESIGN SPACES?
Sam Mitchell: I think accessible design is important when we are designing spaces so that people feel comfortable in the space and can operate independently. That they feel included, and you know life with disabilities isn’t easy and you just want to live a normal life. So, if we design spaces that allow them to do that then that’s ideal. My experience has really taught me to focus on the user experience of the space like how does the flooring help someone navigate through the space?
WHAT ARE SOME THINGS THAT OTHER DESIGNERS MISS WHEN DESIGNING SPACES AS FAR AS ACCESSIBILITY?
Sam Mitchell: Something that other designers sometimes do is getting caught up in the visual aesthetics of a space and making it look nice but is it also practical? Like function and having a nice balance and really bringing it all together and acoustics and lighting, contrast. From a personal perspective I find wayfinding and we tend to want to hide it or make it clean and sleek, but it’s important that it’s legible like finding a restroom. How easily can someone with low vision or visually impaired find the restroom? I know that some have brail but I don’t utilize brail, so graphics that are really clear which help me know where to go so I don’t have to ask where the restroom is.
WHAT THINGS HAVE HELPED YOU TO WORK AS A DESIGNER?
Sam Mitchell: When I started at ACI I had requested two large monitors, a 32in size monitors and they provided those and through the Windows operating system I use custom scaling to make everything bigger and use the magnifying glass and in addition, they got me a large print keyboard that has high contrast keys and it’s something I didn’t even know I needed, so it has really helped. I also wanna give them a big credit for being so understanding when it comes to transportation. I use a local public transportation system that’s called Ride KC Freedom for the elderly and disabled. I don’t have a lot of control of what time I will make it to work cause it’s a share program so I’m riding with other passengers and they determine the schedules, so sometimes I get here early, sometimes I get here late. Everyone has been really understanding about that and if we need to go to job sites outside of my regular scheduled ride everyone has been so thoughtful in helping with transportation.