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By Safiya Merchant
Sometimes in the world of architecture and design, the needs and lives of people living with disabilities can be rendered near invisible.
The rhetoric around disability in the discipline, Robert Adams said, often centers on technical questions of whether buildings are in compliance with codes like the Americans with Disabilities Act.
Unfortunately, for example, wheelchair-accessible ramps can be found at the rear of buildings, next to loading docks and dumpsters — relegating those living with physical disabilities to the background of life and living space, he said.
“There’s always this soft discrimination, I think, of architecture as it’s applied to disabled bodies that isn’t about coming through the front door, or being part of the drama of urban life,” said Adams, associate professor of architecture in the Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning. “Disabled bodies are often scrubbed out of that scene.”
In recognition of his commitment and contributions to areas of disability, Adams is the recipient of the U-M Council for Disability Concerns 2017 James T. Neubacher Award.
The annual award serves as a memorial to Jim Neubacher, a U-M alumnus who was a columnist for the Detroit Free Press and an advocate for people living with disabilities. The honor is given to U-M faculty, staff, students and alumni who have exhibited leadership and service in support of the disability community.
Regent Katherine E. White will present the award to Adams at a ceremony Tuesday at the Rackham Graduate School Assembly Hall. The ceremony, which begins at 9:30 a.m., is open to the public.
Adams, also an associate professor of art and design in the Penny W. Stamps School of Art and Design, is the director of the Master of Science in Design and Health and the chair of the U-M Initiative on Disability Studies.
For several years, Adams has focused his scholarship on the intersection of disability culture, civic infrastructure and design. He said he’s interested in the question of how to “rethink the 21st century city” to increase civic engagement and participation for those living with “bodies of difference.”
“In the work, I’m trying to find ways to make space for a wider bandwidth of alterity,” Adams said.
He said his interest in disability studies grew as he sought to understand his own muscular dystrophy.
At that time, he said, the late U-M professor Tobin Siebers urged him to rethink disability, not as a source of anger, stress or anxiety but as a form of creative practice that produces unique types of knowledge and insight.
“That was really a moment where I pivoted and started to lean into disability as an under-tapped or an understudied program within architecture,” Adams said.
In his nomination letter, Perry Kulper, associate professor of architecture, said Adams “has foregrounded conversations, collaborative efforts and design production surrounding questions of disability.”
He said Adams’ passion for disability issues extends to his teaching and work within the college, including framing studios and seminars to advance “historical, theoretical and design opportunities relative to disability thinking.”
“His training in architecture, and more generally in his deep understanding of cultural discourses has qualified him in unique ways to triangulate between multiple disciplines, respecting and at times reframing political and operational territories linked to disability culture,” Kulper said.
“Importantly, Robert has never framed disability in negative terms,” Kulper continued. “Rather he sees enormous potential, unique qualities and important contributions in those commonly stereotyped as disabled.”
Chief among Adams’ designs is his “Asclepius Machine,” a ramp that can be installed at the entrances of institutions like children’s hospitals. As people travel through the ramp, it moves and breathes and responds to the user’s movement. The design also includes a soundscape and lighting system.
“So when a child is moving through this space in a wheelchair, as soon as they understand their action triggers the environment, they have power over this larger piece of structure, which is a very different sensation than going to the hospital and feeling confused or alienated,” Adams said.
Another of his designs includes a pod-like office that can be used by medical practitioners within the clinical setting to de-stress and get their own space to think clearly about their cases and make decisions.
In a collaboration with the VA Ann Arbor Healthcare System and UM Hospital, Adams said they are interested in how a similar concept could benefit those with post-traumatic stress disorder. By making the pods customizable to patients’ needs, they could serve as spaces for relaxation.
As the co-founder of Beijing Architecture Studio Enterprise, much of his work at the intersection between architecture and disability also takes place in China where he is currently installing an exhibition for the upcoming Shenzhen architecture and urbanism biennale.
In an interview, Kulper commended Adams’ long-standing dedication to more difficult questions of disability in a field where there are often “fashionable trends and tendencies” that some architects pursue.
“I think fundamentally Robert tries to reframe stereotypes relative to what’s accepted or projected culturally in relationship to disability, reframing stereotypes through design and through interaction in design, through engagement not only to disability cultures but also to broader constituencies,” Kulper said.
“He sees opportunities where others see closed doors relative to disability.”
By Jeff Bleiler