When we think of accessibility in 2019, we would like to think that the world has become a more accommodating space for everyone–one where design plays an important role. While this may be true in some cases with evolving technology, we are still falling short from creating truly accessible environments in places like brick and mortar stores. As more people are becoming empowered to come forward about their restrictions with accessibility, we are becoming increasingly aware that this affects more than just wheelchair users, but the mobility requirements of many.
Especially when we think of electronic retailers like Apple, Best Buy and Microsoft; there seems to be a one-size-fits-all model that prioritizes aesthetic over functionality. While the stores often boast a sharp, clean look, the service benches tend to stand at a singular height and with the product mounted far away enough from the edge that a person in a wheelchair would find it impossible to reach without assistance.
That’s why Tania Bortolotto, president of Toronto architecture firm BORTOLOTTO, re-invented the typical service bench for people from all walks of life. The Shape Shift Bench takes the practicality of a typical service bench that can be found at electronic retailers and transforms it to serve patrons of all abilities. The lowest standing point on bench is 2’5”, ideal for wheelchair users or those experiencing height challenges, and also features a large, flat surface elevated from the ground to be used as multi-purpose seating on both sides. Whether bound to a wheelchair, using a walking-aid or suffering from other disabilities, the Shape Shift Bench provides easy and unobstructed access to services.
I believe that aesthetic and practicality should go hand-in-hand, which is manifested in the Shape Shift bench– it is designed as a continuous solid surface that bends and shifts to create a station that accommodates various height and mobility requirements, whether that be sitting, standing or accessibility by wheelchair users. The bench terminates by folding into a vertical wall which carries the media screen and allows for a seamless connection to power from above. The Shape Shift Bench acts as a self-service counter, providing users with access to laptops, a digital display, and a printer through hidden wiring, built into the piece.
It’s no secret that barriers to accessibility have a serious impact on the mental health of the disabled. Feeling like you can’t adequately maneuver basic day-to-day activities or access the same services as able-bodied individuals can be embarrassing, especially when having to ask for special assistance. It is for these reasons that it is paramount that retailers consider making their work or service benches more accessible. Ease of access is a simple consideration that would be life-changing if adopted by everyone; it upholds the dignity and pride of the disabled and positivity impacts the mental health of all through the promotion of inclusivity.
The Shape Shift Bench is a nod at equality—that technology or a retail station within reach shouldn’t be a privilege, but an equal right for everyone. It is also proof positive that good accessibility design can also be attractive and contribute positively to the built environment.
As an architect and designer, I would love to see others follow suit in the coming years to design more accessible retail environments. Retail giants should keep all clients top of mind, including the disabled. We all have a role to play in alleviating the debilitating impacts of depression and social anxiety, especially when it comes to the disabled. Something as simple as the Shape Shift Bench could leave a lasting impression of comfort and inclusion for an overall more pleasant retail experience for all.