Building Inclusivity from the Ground Up

Person walking up building steps using a white cane and dog guide

The AWS Foundation, founded in 1989, is a Northeast Indiana-focused grant-making nonprofit organization. Its mission is to financially assist organizations working with children and adults with intellectual, developmental, and physical disabilities to live as independently as they want, be included in the community, and function at their highest potential. It has grown from one employee to an organization with eight team members and several interns. In 2022, the organization provided 98 grants totaling nearly $5 million to Northeast Indiana organizations seeking to enable those with disabilities.

When the Foundation sought to build an accessible building in Ft. Wayne reflecting Universal Design (designing products or environments to be usable by all), they turned to the individuals they serve (many of whom have various disabilities) and employees for feedback. They knew they had a big task. With the help of local designers and builders, and input from people with various disabilities, they were able to accomplish just that!

“We wanted to be able to host community groups and allow our meeting rooms and spaces to be available for anyone and everyone who wanted to take advantage of them,” says Patti Hays, CEO.

The Foundation brought in groups from across Northeast Indiana with varying disabilities and had them test the spaces in the building. Through trial and error, they found ideas such as the tilt of mirrors or angles of countertops didn’t work for everyone. Adjustments were made for people utilizing the building.

“We built our facility with universal design principles, with the idea that we can provide meeting space for virtually all in our community,” says Hays.

Design Features

When you pull into the parking lot, you see that all are welcome. There are many accessible parking spots and a large canopy over the entrance provide shelter from the weather. Extra-wide automatic doors — like the building opening its arms— invite and welcome everyone.

Furnishings are larger and more space is provided between furniture. Hallways are wider, allowing people using mobility devices or working a dog guide to maneuver through the building easily. Various electrical outlets are at higher heights, accommodating those who may not be able to reach low outlets.

“Powerchairs and wheelchairs are becoming larger, and we need to build a space where people can continue conversations as they move from room to room,” says Hays.

Sensory Elements

Sensory elements are prevalent on the floors, walls, and countertops. Many conference rooms are named after someone who made great strides in the world of disabilities. 

The building features a Temple Grandin room, a Justin Dart room, and a Helen Keller room. The Helen Keller room has braille wallpaper with various words (Hope, Respect, Trust, etc.) educating anyone utilizing the conference room.

“We wanted to bring continued awareness to visual impairments with the space,” said Hays.

Hays also spoke about the use of visual descriptors in all meetings, saying,

“We don’t know the level of sight of others on our Zoom calls or those in a room. One principle of Universal Design is to anticipate inclusion for people of all abilities.”

The outside of the building is just as accessible as the inside. In fact, several tactile features are used for wayfinding for those with blindness or low vision. There is also a green space for a service animal relief area, creating a more welcoming setting for service animal teams.

The entire building has many hidden elements to make life easier for those with disabilities. AWS Foundation, its design and contracting teams, kept universal design at the forefront while gathering input from people using the space. At the end of the day, universal design can’t be assigned to an individual — it takes a village to ensure inclusivity.

In short, “Inclusivity was at the heart of the entire build,” says Patti Hays.

Learn More

APH ConnectCenter VisionAware provides information about redesigning living environments. Here, you can find information about the use of lighting and color and contrast. Furthermore, learn about the publication “Lighting Your Way to Better Vision.”