AIA Chicago member, Rachel Wiesbrock, Assoc. AIA, is an Accessibility Specialist at LCM Architects. As an individual born with a physical disability, she has taken her personal experiences and turned those into learned moments to design better spaces for all people.
As an emerging professional, Rachel serves the Institute as the ‘State and Territory Associate Representative (STAR)’ on the AIA Illinois Board of Directors, and is also a member of AIA Illinois’ Emerging Professionals Committee. She holds a Bachelor of Architecture degree from the Illinois Institute of Technology.
We invited Rachel to share her perspective during Asian American Pacific Islander Heritage Month as she brings such a unique and fresh voice to our profession.
What, or who, inspired you to become an architect?
In third grade, when my grandpa kept asking me what I wanted to be when I grew up, I told him my favorite classes were math and art. He said, “Become an architect!” as if I would know what that meant at eight years old, but I thought about it often and the rest is history.
Also, as a person with a physical disability, I’ve always felt like an afterthought in the build environment and as I grew up and experienced different buildings, cities, etc. I knew that disability awareness was severely lacking in architecture. So I kept telling myself that my first-hand perspective can, and will, contribute to a long overdue reprioritization of accessible and inclusive design.
What does ‘equity’ mean to you?
I have thought long and hard how I “define” equity in a broad sense, and I would say it’s not only the consideration and execution of full inclusion, but especially a true and genuine effort for all people to feel welcomed and encouraged to have equal experiences.
What has been a large challenge or obstacle as an architectural professional and how are you working to overcome it?
Even though this issue existed long before the pandemic, work-life balance has become quite a hot topic since I’ve entered the profession about five years ago. A lot of generational stereotypes seem to coincide with these discussions and can create tense working environments and expectations. Thankfully, my firm has a balanced in-office vs. work-from-home policy that keeps accountability in-check while giving everyone the opportunity to have frequent discussions with project managers and teams about realistic and reasonable workloads. I wouldn’t consider myself a very confrontational person, but throughout the years, I have learned through coworkers and colleagues how to stand up for myself and have some tougher conversations if I know they will improve my work-life balance.
You are an outspoken advocate for people with disabilities. What is one small thing that everyone can do – or be aware of – in their daily lives to also advocate for others?
Since I was born with my physical disability, navigating through my daily life is chock full of things that are second-nature to me, but I’ve come to learn that most people have never thought about. I would recommend a smaller “activity” everyone can do is actively avoid non-accessible routes for an entire day, i.e. no stairs, only use accessible transit stations, reroutes to the accessible entrances of buildings. I think it would effectively show what daily obstacles people with disabilities as so accustomed to only because they were not considered in the bigger picture of society. The disabled community is not the “problem;” feeding into an ableist society is. The sooner everyone can see that, the sooner real changes can be implemented for a truly equitable world.
What change would you like to see in Chicago’s built environment?
As everyone already knows, Chicago is incredibly vast in its history and representation of people from all walks of life. There’s no other city like it. However, as a person who uses a wheelchair, I would love to be able to visit and experience more historical sites and buildings. I have been to a few older architecturally significant locations and told to wait in the gift shop for over an hour while other people go on the tours. I will admit it to not knowing much about the process of historic restoration, and I understand not every building can be changed to include accessibility, but it would be nice to know that people with disabilities were thought of and actively considered while creating tours and access. In many ways, Chicago is a very accessible city and leaps ahead of other major metropolitan areas, but the city should not stop there.