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Class Cultivates a Landscape of Accessibility

Times Staff Writer

“The first thing to understand,” Mike O’Brien told students in his landscape architecture class, “is that you do not know how to use one of these things. They can be very, very dangerous.”

And then another admonition: “Do not pop wheelies!”

O’Brien had just pulled two wheelchairs from the back of his car inside a parking structure at UCLA’s Westwood campus, and he called for volunteers from the 30 assembled students enrolled in Human Factors in Landscape Architecture. There was a loaded pause, then nervous laughter.

“OK, I’ll get it out of the way,” said Christine Skagland, 39, who, like the other students in the UCLA Extension course, is what O’Brien dubbed a “so-called able-bodied person.”

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She settled into the chair, grasping her purse on her lap. Within minutes she was having her first tentative foray, moving down the slope of the garage.

At Tuesday night’s class, O’Brien required each student to take a turn using a wheelchair to navigate the hilly UCLA campus, confronting unexpected obstacles and frustrations along the way.

O’Brien said it’s his way of teaching students an architecture philosophy called “universal design,” which encourages access to buildings without the ramps and back entrances to which wheelchair users and other disabled people are often relegated.

“You can talk about accessibility in class, but you can’t get the point until you’re in that position yourself,” said O’Brien, 60, a Los Angeles city planner and graduate of UCLA’s landscape architecture program, where he has taught for eight years.

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Stopping at a recently built third-story bridge between two buildings, O’Brien pointed out that most of the structure incorporated wide, flat steps. The wheelchair ramp was off to the side.

“Why did the architect make two-thirds of a perfectly good ramp not accessible?” O’Brien asked the students. “Why put in steps at all?” The students grumbled to one another about the bias they were beginning to perceive.

“Who was that architect?” bellowed Pete Lassen, a community activist and architect who has used a wheelchair since he was injured in a 1964 mine explosion while serving in the Army in Vietnam.

Lassen, 66, came to the class for the second straight year to help his friend O’Brien answer questions about wheelchair use and accessible design. He didn’t always like what he saw Tuesday night.

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“Visually, that’s an admission of failure. If you have to stick a ramp off to the side, it means the stair is really what you wanted to do -- that’s your aesthetic,” Lassen said in an earlier interview. “If you integrated the ramp ... people would use it. It’s that kind of subtlety that we’re hoping to build into people’s design sense.”

Lassen’s easy manner and tactical tips on wheelchair use put the students at ease as they struggled across campus. But he didn’t follow O’Brien’s advice about wheelies, instead popping several expertly, to the delight of the students.

Halfway through the class, Liz Jennings, 46, wheeled herself up the brick path of a retrofitted ramp that zigzagged a steep hill on campus. Her classmates cheered her on as she struggled up the grade, which a student measured at 8.33%, the legal maximum under the Americans With Disabilities Act of 1990.

“Whew! That was tough!” Jennings said as she passed the chair to another student at the top of the hill. “It’s very humbling.”

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Jennings said she wasn’t yet sure how much the experience would influence her designs, but she said she would be considering universal access more than before.

The rise of user-focused design since the 1960s -- along with laws such as the Disabilities Act and its predecessors that require more-accessible buildings -- have led to a change in teaching methods, according to Susan Goltsman, a Berkeley-based landscape architect who has taught about accessibility issues for the American Society of Landscape Architects.

“I call it good design. You study how people actually use the physical environment,” Goltsman said in an interview. “Spaces have to work for people.”

O’Brien said his tactics are part of the teaching evolution brought about by changing legal standards and greater awareness of universal design imperatives. But there’s room for improvement, Lassen said.

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“In three hours, this is probably the best one could do,” he said. But, he added, “there could be a whole course on this.”

Nonetheless, even the brief lesson gave Lassen hope. Back at the parking garage, O’Brien collected homework from the students, who are nearing completion of the four-year certificate program that prepares them for landscape architecture licensure exams.

“You guys are out there designing now, so I want to see perfect,” Lassen told the students about their future projects.

As they started to walk back to their cars, he yelled again, “I want to see perfect!”

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