THE EXACT APRIL DAY that our Pacific NW team talked through potential topics for this special Architecture Issue, one unexpected email landed in my inbox and blew up everything.


That was one powerfully disruptive — and especially well-timed — news tip.

Seattle accessibility consultant and architect Karen Braitmayer, founder and managing principal of Studio Pacifica, had just been awarded the American Institute of ArchitectsWhitney M. Young Jr. Award for her work and advocacy, both personal and professional, for civil rights for people with disabilities.

That’s a really big deal.

Also really big: the accompanying nomination packet compiled and submitted by AIA Seattle. It was so massively impressive, so stuffed with respectful letters of admiration, and case after case of Braitmayer’s wide-ranging, life-changing contributions — inclusive, beautifully designed buildings; national and regional influence on public policy and accessibility; mentorship; speaking engagements; even “just being seen” as an inspiring, successful change-maker who uses a wheelchair — we were done talking through potential topics.

Braitmayer earned both her master’s degree in architecture (from the University of Houston, where her hands-on classmates handmade her a drafting table she could reach) and her architecture license before the enactment of the Americans with Disabilities Act in 1990.

“Pre-ADA, there was a whole different mindset,” she says. “Disability was really the individual’s responsibility; it was not a societal responsibility. I think that’s one of the things all this disability-rights legislation has changed in our mindset: that we have a right to the same education, to employment, to transportation, and to an environment that allows us to get out and contribute. I have the incredible privilege of living in a community I can get out in. So I’m surmising that [a lack of access] would make one feel that you are a second-class citizen, that there is no hope for change, that your life does not have value — which is not the case, right? Everybody’s life has equal value. Everybody should have the opportunity to contribute.”

Accessibility in our built environment is essential — to people, and to architecture — but it is not a given, Braitmayer reminds us. Not yet.

She’s got lots more to contribute.