Perspectives 08.06.2020

Bigger Than Her Body: How Annie Boivin Conquered the World of Architecture While Living with a Disability

“I am someone living with a disability, and I am proud and comfortable about that. But I am much more than my disability.”

It was one of those blustery, frigid winter mornings in Québec City— where the average high temperature during the coldest months of the year is well below freezing—when Annie Boivin realized she wasn’t going to be able to get inside anytime soon.

The architecture school at her university, housed in a 17th century monastery on a UNESCO World Heritage site, has three principal entrances. To pass through the main entrance, a person must first step up a six-inch-high platform, then clear an additional four-inch threshold. The other two entrances, which face the inner courtyard, are well above ground-level and require a person to climb a seven-step staircase just to reach the doors.

This of course isn’t a problem for most people. But for Boivin, who depends on a motorized wheelchair to move around, it meant the only way she could get to and from class every day was to enter the school through the loading bay in the back. There, her wheelchair could ascend the cargo ramp.

On this particular winter day in 2006, though, there was a snafu. A delivery truck driver had parked his vehicle in the loading bay, blocking access to the ramp. Boivin couldn’t get around it. Without a cell phone, she couldn’t call or text anyone for help, either. So she patiently waited outside in sub-freezing temperatures for the truck to leave. When it finally did, she was late for class. She was also shivering with cold.

“At the time I thought, ‘Hey, it’s not this guy’s fault; he’s just doing his job,’” Boivin recalls. “But I also couldn’t help but think, ‘You, architecture school, you as an institution are endorsing this design decision. You have created this situation by making this loading bay my entry. You are the architect that created this problem.’”

Barriers to Equity in Design

Boivin, now a licensed architect who has been practicing in Canada for 10 years, naturally takes an accessibility-first approach to her work. How can the design of our built environments empower people who live with disabilities? How can it ensure their independence and self-sufficiency? How can it protect their right to move safely, and freely, from point A to point B?

But even architects who make it a point to design for universal accessibility can have a difficult time realizing those designs fully. A labyrinth of outdated laws, codes, and regulations in Canadian provinces, and a well-intentioned but inadequate Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) in the U.S., which turned 30 years old last month, mean equitable architectural designs often get value-engineered right out of a project before it even breaks ground.

 

According to Meredith Greene, a principal at mobility consultancy Nelson\Nygaard who specializes in transit planning for people living with disabilities, the problem is two-fold: mindset and money.

First, people without disabilities—who are in the majority and often in decision-making positions—aren’t necessarily hardwired to consider the needs of those who are different from them. Unless they regularly witness the challenges people with disabilities face every day—say, by living with a disabled family member—they are less likely to take them into consideration.

“It’s a matter of changing people’s mindsets, which have been ingrained for a lifetime—and that’s not easy to do,” Greene says. “Built environments must be safe and accessible for anyone from 8 years old to 80 years old. But it’s hard to have a clear understanding of what that means. And this has resulted in an epidemic of slapdash developments that have no consideration for universal design.”

Second, Greene argues, retrofitting existing infrastructure in and around buildings, like entries, sidewalks, street crossings, and bus stops, to accommodate people with disabilities is often considered cost-prohibitive.

“When you’re a public entity and need to save money, where do you cut corners?” she says, recalling an experience she had 15 years ago while working for a public transit authority in Texas. “City council guidance came out that all bus stops needed to be 100 percent accessible for individuals with mobility devices. A single bus stop was approximately $10,000 to upgrade. If you have 2,000 bus stops, that’s 20 million dollars. Who’s paying for that?”

 

Retrofitting existing infrastructure in and around buildings, like entries, sidewalks, street crossings, and bus stops, to accommodate people with disabilities is often considered cost-prohibitive.

More Than a Century of Catch-Up

The price isn’t just monetary; efforts to retrofit are also hampered by practical and philosophical challenges. That the ADA was passed in 1990 and the Accessible Canada Act, or ACA (which builds off the 1977 Canadian Human Rights Act), was passed in 2019 means that more than 100 years of existing building stock and infrastructure across North America have yet to be modified for compliance. The scope of the work required is vast.

“It is all still relatively fresh and new. In the U.S. prior to 1990, you didn’t have to take anyone with a disability into consideration at all, ever. No ramps, no elevators, nothing,” Greene says. “But even with ADA, it’s still an afterthought.”

For buildings deemed historically significant, she adds, it’s even harder to effect change, as preservationists often argue that the design interventions compromise the buildings’ historical character.

While Boivin finds all of this frustrating, her own character is extraordinarily magnanimous. Despite the loading dock debacle, she harbors no resentment toward her undergraduate alma mater, and believes it was a great privilege to study architecture in one of the oldest buildings in North America. And her professors, she says, were among the best in the field. The problem, she says, was built-in.

“I realize there are things my body can do and can’t do. But I never see my body as the issue. Instead, every time I feel left aside or put aside or not included, I realize it’s because of my physical environment,” she says. “In school, people didn’t discriminate against me. The buildings did.”

For buildings deemed historically significant, it’s even harder to effect change, as preservationists often argue that the design interventions compromise the buildings’ historical character.

Design Inequities: Hidden in Plain Sight

The inaccessibility of the built environment is largely imperceptible to people who live without physical disabilities. The world was, and in most cases continues to be, designed by people who enjoy unfettered locomotion, who have no physical encumbrances—people who can get in, out, through, over, under, up, down, and across without ever having to think twice.

Here’s a challenge: The next time you head to your public library, dentist’s office, neighborhood bakery, post office, or public transit station, take notice of how you get there. Then, consider how you’d get there if you didn’t have the use of your legs. You’ll see the world differently—guaranteed. You might even feel a pang of sympathy for those who live with impaired mobility. But then, you snap back to your reality—to your unhampered, independent mobility in a world that was designed for you. Life goes on, and you forget. Not so for Boivin and the millions of people living with a mobility disability in a world that wasn’t designed for them.

“The world I live in often rejects or dismisses my body,” Boivin admits. “I don’t engage in the built environment the way others do.”

In the U.S., approximately one in four adults—61 million people—live with some kind of disability, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Of those, 13.7 percent have a mobility disability that makes walking or climbing stairs very difficult; 6.8 percent have an independent living disability with difficulty doing errands alone; and 3.6 percent have a self-care disability with difficulty dressing or bathing.

In Canada, 22 percent of the national population over the age of 15 lives with a disability. Of those, reports Statistics Canada, 42 percent live with a disability that impairs their ability to move around, including difficulties walking or using stairs. Forty-five percent are unable to bend down or reach up, and 20 percent can’t use their fingers for tasks requiring dexterity—like grasping and turning a door key, or pushing an elevator button. (Once, Boivin says, she was in an elevator with a man who observed her struggling to push the button for her floor. She was holding a pencil in her hand to extend her reach. The man chortled: “Looks like you need a longer stick!” Boivin deadpanned: “No, I need a lower button.”)

Annie and her colleagues in our Vancouver studio (2016)

Strong from the Start

Boivin was 18 months old when she was diagnosed with a rare form of rheumatoid arthritis. Typically, this autoimmune disorder causes damage to a set of joints—say, both wrists or both knees—causing swelling and pain. Severe cases can cause cartilage loss and bone deformity. In Boivin’s case, every joint in her body was attacked by her immune system; even the vertebrae in her spine had fused together. By her eighth birthday, she could no longer walk without the assistance of a motorized wheelchair.

Yet Boivin has never let her physical disability define her. Raised in Québec by a single mother who taught her early on that she was equal to everyone else, she recognized the daily challenges she faced, but she didn’t dwell on them. To her, they were just part of life.

“That’s the thing that’s kind of strange when you think about it: All of our bodies are different, so to what extent is my body more different than others? I knew that I had a disability, but it didn’t really register with me. It didn’t really qualify me. For the longest time, I didn’t know what it meant.”

Now in her mid-thirties, Boivin knows very well what it means to live with a disability—and how to thrive with one. A few years after having completed her undergraduate architectural studies in Québec, she moved to the Pacific Northwest to pursue a master’s degree from the School of Architecture and Landscape Architecture at the University of British Columbia. Peter Busby, an icon in the industry—world-renowned for his progressive environmental agenda and ultra-sustainable buildings—hired her on the spot, the day before her graduation. (Peter was on campus to confer degrees upon the graduates.) She has worked full-time for Perkins and Will ever since.

“I saw in her right away this incredible drive, this determination, this passion for design—it was palpable,” Busby says. “I knew instantly that she would contribute enormously to our practice, and she has. She’s one of the brightest architects I have the pleasure of knowing and collaborating with.”

Making a Difference, Coast to Coast

After nearly a decade working in Vancouver, Boivin spent part of 2018 and most of 2019 on assignment in Montréal, Québec. There, she helped oversee the design and construction of the highly anticipated light rail system Réseau Express Metropolitain, or REM, designed by a consortium of architects that includes Perkins and Will. REM promises beautiful, sustainable  public transit for thousands of residents in the greater Montréal metropolitan area—a cause Boivin is particularly passionate about.

“I don’t know many people with disabilities who own cars. They need an accessible transit system to allow integration with society. Otherwise, how can they go to work, or contribute to the community they live in? Montréal will really benefit from that!”

Unfortunately, the rest of Montréal remains woefully inaccessible, which made routine daily activities an enormous struggle for Boivin, particularly in the snowy winter months. There, nearly every building at the street level requires a person to take a six-inch step up to enter, and almost no buildings have ramps.

“Every storefront you walk in front of is a reminder of the silent discrimination that people living with disabilities are facing.”

And so late last year, she returned to Vancouver—a city celebrated for its progressive embrace of accessible design (Vancouver elected a quadriplegic mayor for the 2006 to 2009 term). It’s a special place for Boivin, not only because it’s the first studio she’s ever worked in full-time, but also because it’s where she achieved some of the most important milestones of her career, like her architectural licensure—also known as registration—in 2018.

Rendering showing view of elevated station from freeway.
Rendering of Réseau Express Metropolitain
Annie helped oversee the design and construction of the highly anticipated light rail system Réseau Express Metropolitain, or REM, designed by a consortium of architects that includes Perkins and Will.
Courtesy of NouvIR
Annie at her induction to the Architectural Institute of British Columbia (2018).

Licensure: Taking the Road Less-Traveled

While the path to becoming a registered architect in Canada varies by province, in British Columbia, the effort required is Herculean. Over the course of about seven years, an aspiring architect—who must already have a master’s degree in architecture—is obligated to complete nearly 4,000 professional internship hours under the direction of a registered architect; take six day-long classes held by the Architectural Institute of British Columbia, the licensing arm of the province; pay $1,000 to take and pass four written exams within two consecutive days; and deliver an hour-long oral defense before a three-person panel of registered architects.

For most people pursuing registration, the process is mentally and physically challenging. For Boivin, it was even harder—especially the requirement that she spend 250 hours reviewing work on active construction sites.

“There are parts of the licensing exam that are really challenging. She was telling me how scary it is,” says Leslie Van Duzer, Boivin’s thesis advisor and mentor at the University of British Columbia. “She is so vulnerable in her chair on project sites where everyone is wearing hard hats and metal-toe boots, where the flooring is uneven and often downright treacherous even for non-disabled people. But the licensing board did not waive its requirement for her.”

In fact, Boivin never asked to have the requirements waived for her. Instead, she and her team got creative, jury-rigging accessible site entrances, passages, and exits. In one case, Boivin recalls, a site superintendent laid slabs of plywood over gaping trenches in the ground where crews were installing a pipe, thereby creating ad-hoc bridges that she could wheel herself over. Similarly, another time a colleague placed plywood over areas safe enough for Boivin’s wheelchair to roll on; night had fallen, and it was too difficult to discern the dirt footpath from the freshly poured concrete slab.

“On that project, I had a pinch-me moment,” Boivin says. “That site visit was the challenge that I didn’t know I could overcome. I didn’t know if I’d fail while trying. And this was a project that was going toward my licensure! Somehow, I had to make it happen.”

Annie and former classmates from undergrade reuniting 6yrs after graduation (2012)
Annie and her classmates reuniting six years after having completed their undergraduate studies in Québec (2012).

Born to Be a Trailblazer

Making it happen is a consistent thread across the tapestry of Boivin’s life. Her positive, can-do energy is palpable, and her glass-half-full perspective on just about everything can lift even the most dour of spirits. She is warm and empathic. Quick-witted and full of zingers. Her ebullience is contagious.

Those who know her describe her as a big personality in a petite frame. Because the rheumatoid arthritis stunted her bone growth when she was a child, today, Boivin weighs no more than 90 pounds; upright, she would stand no taller than five feet. Her hands, fingers, and arms are shorter than the average person’s, her wrists roll inward, and the joints connecting some of the bones in her hand are enlarged. As a result, her dexterity is very limited, and movement is painful: without the protective cartilage in her joint sockets, her bones rub together. She sees a physical therapist every other week to stretch her joints and relieve some of the discomfort.

“She doesn’t have the kind of mobility that we do,” says Van Duzer. “But as a personality, she is unbelievable. She’s a force of nature—a force to be reckoned with. Unstoppable.”

Susan Gushe, the managing director of the Vancouver studio of Perkins and Will, where Boivin is based, agrees: “She is a leader, and an inspiration. Not only does she have to face the everyday challenges of a woman in a male profession, but also, she has had to overcome the barrier of obtaining her field services experience in a wheelchair to become registered. Annie has shown us what’s possible, and has challenged us to think much more broadly. She has made us better—as a firm, and as a profession.”

 

“One in a Million”

Both Gushe and Van Duzer believe Boivin may be one of the only registered, practicing architects in Canada who lives with a permanent physical disability that affects their mobility. Over a teaching career that spans 30 years and a dozen schools in Canada and the U.S., Van Duzer says she has encountered only one other physically disabled student.

In fact, it seems impossible to know for sure just how many licensed architects with disabilities are practicing in North America, or even how many students with disabilities have graduated from architecture schools. Since health information is often protected by privacy laws, neither schools nor professional organizations can mandate the collection of this data. Individuals may volunteer to self-report, but self-reporting is inconsistent; thus, any data collected present an incomplete picture, at best.

A spokesperson at the American Institute of Architects said that, among its approximately 94,000 members, only 43 of those members reported having impaired mobility as of November 2019; 121 reported having impaired hearing; and 28 reported having impaired sight. It is unclear whether the data overlap—where one member might have several disabilities.

The National Council of Architectural Registration (NCARB), which certifies architectural licensure in the U.S. and offers reciprocity for Canadian architects licensed through the Canadian Architectural Licensing Authorities (CALA), does not record any data related to physical disabilities, a spokesperson said. While NCARB does track requests for special accommodations at its testing centers—anything from extra time, extra breaks, or special equipment—it does not track the reasons for the requests. These reasons may include physical or non-physical disabilities, temporary medical issues, or space and privacy concerns for nursing mothers. According to the spokesperson, between November 2016 and November 2019, 300 people were granted accommodations for the Architect Registration Examination (ARE).

In Canada, architectural licensure is handled by provincial licensing authorities, which together form CALA. A spokesperson with the Ontario Association of Architects, one of those licensing authorities, said information about physical disabilities is not collected due to privacy concerns. Inquiries emailed to the Architectural Institute of British Columbia and the Ordre des Architectes du Québec, as well as the Canadian Architectural Certification Board, did not yield responses by the time of this writing.

The Association of Collegiate Schools of Architecture (ACSA) also cites privacy considerations as to why it is unable to collect personal information about disabilities. “My guess is that at a large school of 400+ students, there is very possibly only one physically differently-abled student enrolled in the architecture program,” said ACSA Director of Research and Information Kendall A. Nicholson in an email. “And so if the school were to report one student it would be obvious who that student is.”

Boivin, for her part, is open and transparent about her disability, and freely discusses her experience with anyone who expresses an interest in learning more. It is that friendly, earnest openness, combined with her strong will and seize-life-by-the-horns attitude, Van Duzer believes, that distinguishes Boivin.

“She had the vision and determination to go to school to study architecture, and UBC is proud to count her among our alumni.”

A wheelchair ramp provides accessibility to the Buchanan Arts Complex on the UBC campus. Renovations by Peter Busby / Perkins and Will, 2010.
Source: Google Maps
Annie accepting her licensure from the Architectural Institute of British Columbia (2018).

An Inspiration for the Next Generation

Another of Boivin’s unique qualities is her penchant for seeing the positive in every situation. This is especially true when she evaluates the trajectory of her own life and career.

“When I think of me 10 years, 15 years back, and about how worried I was, not knowing if I would succeed because I personally didn’t know any architects living with a disability, I’m kind of proud of how far I’ve come. Proud of the precedent I’ve set. Proud that future Annies won’t feel like they’re navigating uncharted territory. Proud to give them permission to say, ‘You know what?  I’m worthy. I can achieve this.’”

At the same time, Boivin will tell you in no uncertain terms that she does not consider herself a particularly courageous person, let alone a superhuman. In fact, to suggest that her disability requires extraordinary bravery—a sentiment often conveyed with a shake of the head and an “I just don’t know how you do it, Annie”—is irksome for her. It suggests, in her mind, that others wouldn’t consider her life worth living if it meant they had to deal with the everyday challenges she faces.

“I think of my life as being wonderful and exciting,” she says. “Sure, it is challenging. But I don’t think life was meant to be without challenges. If you’re enjoying an easy life, good for you. I’m enjoying a challenging life. It’s worth the struggle.”