The legacy of Whitney M. Young Jr.: Equity and accessibility in architecture

Whitney M. Young Jr at the Civil Rights March on Washington

Whitney M. Young Jr (far left) at the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom

This essay is one of a series commemorating the 50-year anniversary of Whitney Young Jr.’s remarks at the 1968 AIA Convention in Portland. Visit our page honoring this historic speech to read more.

When he raised the issue of diversity and inclusion in front of the AIA membership, Whitney Young made no reference to those with physical disabilities. But from the perspective of fifty years on, any commitment to inclusiveness demands a far closer look in the mirror than was imagined even by a visionary advocate for inclusion a half century ago.

In 1936, at the age of nine, Robert Lynch contracted polio. He would never recover the use of his legs. In his senior year, Lynch decided to pursue a career in architecture. His school of choice was Notre Dame, since it was in a flat part of the country. Once on campus, however, Lynch discovered the challenge he faced was not geography, but architecture. Many of his classes were on second and third floors. With no legal and design remedies at hand, Lynch learned to bench press 300 pounds, enabling him to hoist his body and his hip-length steel braces up and down stairs.

Although the building industry, code writers, and the owners of historic properties still wrestle with issues of accessibility, Robert Lynch began practice in a world with no curb cuts, ramps, designated handicap parking, and limited access to public transportation.

The journey taken from then to now was not unlike that faced by women, people of color, and members of the LGBTQ community—long, pain-staking, and often frustrating. Marginalized groups learned from one another tactics to drive change. In 1977, for example, the American Coalition of Citizens with Disabilities staged a ten-city sit in.

AIA became involved at the national level through the leadership of AIA President Leon Chatelain, Jr., FAIA, who was also active in the National Society for Crippled Children and Adults, and in 1967 served for two years as its president. In the early ‘70s, AIA members Edward Noakes, Edward Matthei, and Robert Lynch hosted a 60-person conference which resulted in the creation of the National Center for a Barrier-Free Environment. In making the case for legislative redress, AIA argued that barrier-free design was about making buildings usable by all people. In other words, accessibility was not an add on, but an essential element of good design.

In 1974, the AIA Barrier Free Task Force, chaired by Noakes, proposed and the AIA Board added to its Code of Ethics an “inherent right” clause that made barrier-free a civil rights issue. In 1986, the National Council on Disability drafted the first version of an Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). President George H.W. Bush signed the ADA into law in the summer of 1990.  

There are no statistics that measure the distance between Robert Lynch’s first years of practice and where we are now when it comes to the number of women and men with disabilities pursuing successful careers in architecture. But there is no doubt their inclusion in the profession has brought with it unique perspectives that have not only enriched the practice of architecture and communities everywhere, but also architecture. Design is not the whole answer, but as the long and ultimately successful campaign to foster barrier-free design shows, it is essential to shaping a truly diverse, inclusive, and equitable world.

AIA is committed to broadening equity, diversity, and inclusion to create a stronger profession and promote Equity in Architecture. AIA seeks examine and support a diverse workforce through initiatives such as the  Diversity Recognition Program and Diversity in the Profession of Architecture Survey and build a stronger pipeline through K-12, Higher Education, and Emerging Professionals programs.

Image credits

Whitney M. Young Jr at the Civil Rights March on Washington

US National Archives

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