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Accessibility and Appeal: Interior Design Complements

What could an interior designer and a person with low vision possibly have in common?-They both must consider lighting, colour and general decor when making an environment (either their clients' or their own) more comfortable. No one knows this better than Gord Smith of Toronto, who is legally blind and who has worked in the interior design field for approximately 15 years.

The ability to create aesthetically pleasing surroundings and impaired vision are not mutually exclusive; in fact, they're complementary. The access issues that influence a legally blind person's choice of decor and design only add to the likelihood of ending up with a visually appealing room.

Says Smith, "I was only 19 or 20 when I became interested in making the environment in which I lived more comfortable for myself-more visually accessible and more visually appealing. Whether it's lighting level, type of flooring or wall finish-they all contribute to how a room looks or feels by impacting colour contrast, glare, etc. This interest and realization led naturally to working with others to improve their environments."

One summer while working in a retail store selling home furnishings, wall and floor coverings, a colleague encouraged Smith to pursue his passion. "The interior designer there was taken with my work and suggested I try self-employment," says Smith. "Not once did I think my vision impairment would present any difficulties."

Gord Smith earned a diploma in Home Furnishing Merchandising from Centennial College, and accreditation from both the Ontario College of Art and Design and the Ryerson School of Interior Design.

"I had large print textbooks," states Smith, "and a note taker provided me with large print class notes. For reading image captions, I used a closed-circuit television (CCTV); and for creating designs, I used Auto CAD, a computer program with a built-in screen magnifier.

"For tasks where I could not use a computer, I had a sighted assistant. In one class, for instance, when we had to use paints to combine two colours to create a third, I chose the original colours and the assistant did the actual "colouring", because I had difficulty applying the colours evenly and in the right place.

"In Drafting class, similarly, the assistant did the actual drawing once I selected the furnishings for a room, where I wanted them to go, and the relative scale of things."

As a self-employed interior designer working in both residential and commercial environments, Gord Smith "wore many hats. Some clients knew what they wanted but needed a guiding hand, while others asked for recommendations. The job could be anything from selecting a paint colour to go with a particular fabric, to knocking down a portion of a house or office and designing a new environment."

To stay abreast of current trends, designers consult trade journals and attend trade shows. Through industry events, they develop a network of contacts from manufacturers to contractors, whereby they give and receive referrals.

Since Smith was recommended to most of his clients, they usually already knew something about his work and vision impairment. For the most part, his vision was a non-issue.

Smith used Auto CAD to generate drawings of recommended changes for his clients. He also had an architect create a rendering to show what the final product would look like.

For the "business" side of self-employment, he used his computer, which is equipped with ZoomText, a screen magnification program.

Besides having low vision himself, Smith worked with several clients who were vision-impaired. From commercial clients wanting their offices overhauled to residential clients desiring a change, "the common complaint was that the environment was too bright or not bright enough."

Having faced the same issues himself, Smith was "better equipped to recommend solutions in terms of lighting, colour contrast, possible glare etc. Even with fully sighted clients, I had an advantage because these are elements they often don't consider."

Although he was uniquely positioned to be successful in his field, Smith had to consider economics. "During the 90's, interior design was a booming business and it seemed like everyone was in the field," explains Smith. "Sometimes when you're self-employed, you live hand to mouth."

Smith returned to retail but found that this presented some unique challenges. "I had difficulty with the lighting in some stores, with both overexposure and underexposure, and the way traffic areas were lit," he confides. "Also, customers noticed when I held fabrics, coverings or books close to my face, and they asked questions."

When the store where Smith was working in the late 90's relocated, he decided to leave retail and focus on consulting, which he is still involved in today.

When asked for words of wisdom he could share with others who are vision-impaired and thinking of entering the interior design field, Gord Smith says, "Go for it. This business presents certain challenges for everyone.

"Learn to meet your unique challenges by tapping into the insight and knowledge you have as a person with low vision. Work with your vision impairment--not against it."