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News for Researchers

Elaine Ostroff Recognized at Smithsonian Museum for Work on Universal Design

December 18, 2016
Source: Metro West Daily News, MA

Note: The online story includes a slideshow of photographs.]

Elaine Ostroff recalls working for the state Department of Mental Health several decades ago when she saw a young boy sitting by himself, rocking back and forth with nothing in the room and no one with him.

Staff at the facility Ostroff was visiting told her, "Oh, he destroys everything."

Today, Ostroff says shes glad people who have mental and other disabilities are much more integrated into schools and their communities.

"Whats really changed is the whole notion of community living" as opposed to living in an institution, she said during a recent interview in her Natick home. "A family that has a child with a disability has many more options."

Ostroff, a pioneer and proponent of universal design, is being recognized with an exhibit of her work at the Smithsonians National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C. Universal design, which has its roots in the disability rights movement, means designing environments in a way that everyone will benefit.

The exhibit is on display for several months, though Ostroffs papers will be available for people to peruse even after the exhibit is removed, said Catherine Keen, an archivist in the museums archive center.

Keen recalled vising Camden Yards in Baltimore when it was new, and learning that people who use wheelchairs do not have to be segregated to a specific area of the ballpark.

"I think people dont realize that its everywhere," Keen said of universal design. "I think researchers who come to look at these papers will realize how influential Elaine has been and the movement has been in the built environment we completely take for granted unless you [are] disabled and then you cant take it for granted."

Ostroff, who has spoken internationally about universal design and was the co-founder and longtime executive director of the Adaptive Environments organization, said shes excited to have her work included in the museums collection.

"Its pretty thrilling," she said. "It means that the materials will get used."

Ostroff, who spent some of her career focusing on education and classrooms, said shes glad to see improvements over the years in accessibility requirements for a variety of buildings.

Officials must make certain "we build buildings for people of all abilities," she said.

She recalled starting the Looking Glass Theatre in 1962. The organization performed for children in schools in Rhode Island and Massachusetts. She said that experience was her impetus to educate teachers and designers.

Ostroff, with Wolfgang F.E. Preiser, edited the first edition of "The Universal Design Handbook." She said the book provides inspirational case studies and examples of successful projects.

Educating interior designers, building inspectors, architects and others must continue, she said.

Among many other accomplishments, Ostroff coined the term "user/expert." Designers, she said, should consult the people who will use a building.

The organization Ostroff helped found is now called the Institute for Human Centered Design, and today is an international non-governmental educational organization based in Boston that offers expertise in accessibility requirements and universal design best practices.

Ostroff recalled times when the organization fielded a variety of [inquiries], including from families wondering about making their home accessible for a child.

"These calls were so powerful and the people were so needy," Ostroff said.

Sometimes, a ramp or modification to a staircase "could make all the difference," she said.

[Event information:] "Access! Everyone! Everywhere! Elaine Ostroff and the Universal Design Movement"

WHEN: Through March 23 [2017]

WHERE: Smithsonian Museum of American History, National Mall, Constitution Avenue NW, between 12th and 14th streets, Washington, D.C.


INFO: [Web]; 202-633-1000 [phone]

Link: Go to website for News Source

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