When I was a kid—elementary school, probably 2nd or 3rd grade—I didn't have any friends, but I was big into being high and mighty in my newly discovered “altruism.” So I decided my friendless lunches would be better served volunteering in the special education classroom.
The special education class in my Los Angeles elementary school was the safe haven for just under a dozen kids, mostly older than me, and all severely disabled. Every day while my classmates ran out to the blacktop, I'd waltz into the special education classroom to spend my time playing games and doling out the sweetness like the saving angel I assumed I was.
But there was one girl—a teenager who was never able to transition into a different environment—who was mute and wheelchair-bound with quickly deteriorating use of her body. I don’t want to misdiagnose her pointlessly in a blog, so I won’t guess at the categorization of her condition, but the point is, for all of my time spent volunteering in that classroom, one thing was clear: she despised me.
I didn't understand why. Here I was, volunteering my time, and I was just so sweet. How couldn’t she see how great it was for me—a perfectly capable and intelligent 7-year-old—to be here spending my lunch breaks with them? Of course, I was a bit young to understand the concept of othering, but one day, as she had difficulty eating, and glared at me from the sides of her eyes, it dawned on me.
She didn't want my handout. She didn’t want someone coming in on her high horse, talking down and to her; she wanted me to treat her as I would treat any of my classmates. She didn't want my proud altruism; she wanted to live her life as she desired.
Honestly, few interactions have stuck with me like that one, and it led me to become passionate about stripping away stigma of mental, physical, and behavioral issues.
So it was an honor to moderate a panel on “The State of Design for Mental Health Services” with Susan Mulholland of Mulholland Art & Design Commercial Interiors, and Jamie Huffcut, associate in Health & Wellness at Gensler. I just wish we had longer than 35 minutes!
What the panel came down to is this: It’s a broad, tricky question, which ranges from how to create safe spaces for children being diagnosed with autism, to seniors attempting to age-in-place with a loved one suffering from dementia, to that whole wide range in between we, too often, ignore. It’s a question that needs to be addressed from the start of a project to the finish, not—as I brought up at Design Connections—a problem for a separate group of mental health specialists to come in later and try to jimmy into place. We all know it’s far easier to build into plans before anything is built than to try to piecemeal things together after the fact.
I am proud of the fact that I work in an industry that not only is capable of taking on issues like mental, physical, and behavioral health, but also one that is striving to understand and make the changes that are needed, rather than sweep it under the rug as we do so often.
What’s more, as designers, we have the ability to create environments that encourage and aid those on the outskirts of what is considered “normal.” We are able to create environments that not only take others into consideration, but help remove the othering they so often feel. We aren’t altruistic angels for doing it: we’re good designers. And in every project, being the very best we can for all people should be the goal.