As plans for the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Museum came together, accessibility became one of the project’s defining features. Its designers aspired to build the most accessible museum in the world.
“Accessibility actually becomes part of the exhibition,” Ileana Rodriguez, a Houston-based architect and 2012 Paralympian, said.
Early in the design phase, project manager John Graham, of Mason Dale Architects, said input from Olympians and Paralympians was sought. Anderson Mason Dale, the Denver-based architect of record on the project, hired Rodriguez directly.
Rodriguez set a U.S. record in the 200-meter breaststroke in 2008 and at one time trained in Colorado Springs. She took seventh in the 100 breaststroke at the 2012 London Paralympic Games.
Under “ambitions” in a 2011 paralympic.org profile, Rodriguez put that she wanted, “To work as an architect to make more buildings accessible to people with a disability.” For the better part of a decade, that’s what she’s been doing.
She owns a design consulting firm, I Design Access LLC, but at the time of her involvement with the Olympic Museum she was “moonlighting.” Rodriguez says she came on board because of past experience with the then-USOC, working with them on the expansion of the Olympic Training Center to make it accessible for all.
“I was very keen on forcing the design to be equal for everyone,” Rodriguez said. “It doesn’t matter if you are an athlete or someone that doesn’t do sports, or if you’re someone with a disability, it doesn’t matter. The experience should be the same.”
She’s been using a wheelchair since she was 13. She sought more perspectives as well, reaching out to other Paralympians.
She also pushed for exhibits to represent Olympians and Paralympians equally, though she recognized the Olympics have been around much longer. Museum CEO Chris Liedel reaffirmed that it was close to a 60-40 percentage split.
“We’re not equal yet, OK, in general. But I think this is a great step,” Rodriguez said. “The museum, I definitely think it’s going to make a statement, what the U.S. team could be about.”
Guests enter, purchase tickets and receive a personalized electronic tag that communicates needs to certain exhibits. They’ll then take a 20-person elevator up to the top floor through a painted shaft that communicates “the Olympic experience.”
The wide, continuously flowing ramps allow visitors to travel down through the exhibits, which also have a strong emphasis on providing the same experiences for all. There will be braille and audio-visual elements.
And no one has to split up and find a way to the next level.
“Everybody’s going to take the same path,” Graham said. “There’s not a sort of hierarchy of moving up and down in the building.”
Luc Bamberger of Anderson Mason Dale said the test in whether they made one of the world’s most accessible museums will be in how visitors experience it.
“On our minds yes, we did everything we could and really (went) the extra mile to make sure it really turned out well,” he said.
Up-to-code wasn’t the goal.
“I think this building will set a national and international standard for accessibility,” former chairman of the board Dick Celeste said. “Whether you’re in a wheelchair or sight impaired or hearing impaired, you will be able to have an experience that’s essentially the same as an able-bodied person.”