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Creating Accessible Caribbean Outdoor Spaces

Charmaine Werth is an Interior Designer on the Caribbean island of Antigua & Barbuda where she lives with her architectural designer husband, Kerry. She has a comprehensive and diverse portfolio having managed design projects for hotels, restaurants, ambassadors, heads of state, minsters of government, banks, medical providers, private residences and retail outlets.  Caribbean design, she says, “is like the people – a mix of cultures, a pepperpot, a potpourri, a mélange, if you will. We use bold colours and many materials. We have deep lazy balconies and patios, shutters for protection, shade and accents of colour and, we bring the outdoors in with many windows and doors.” The uniqueness and diversity of that region has provided her with inspiration for the reinterpretation of contemporary Caribbean design.

For the past thirteen years, Charmaine has been living with Multiple Sclerosis and after her diagnosis, started “thinking differently in terms of my designing,” she said. Universal design and the creation of accessible, functional spaces became more important as her awareness grew.

On her island, it is difficult for wheelchair users to get around independently. In the capital of St. John’s, there are just a few buildings with ramps, and automatic doors for easy entry are also few. Someone will hold a door open for you, but entry without assistance is not possible in many cases for wheelchairs. Villages and communities in the outer parishes are not wheelchair friendly. Many of the hotels on the island may have accessible rooms but few can be considered fully accessible. Charmaine admits there is a lot to be done in the built environment on her island as it relates accessible spaces, and she too had to make adjustments in her own home.  “When I was diagnosed with MS, I had to renovate my bathroom for a walk-in shower. I wasn’t using a wheelchair but I had difficulty walking and I needed to sit in the shower.  I didn’t want my bathtub to be in my shower space, so I had to separate them – I basically designed a wet room. I had grab bars installed – and it all looked beautiful, so an accessible bathroom can still be compliant while aesthetically pleasing if you’re thoughtful enough about it.”

Charmaine thinks safe and functional kitchens and bathrooms should be in the design of every home, with wheelchair users, the blind, people with other disabilities and seniors being the focus. She also believes the outdoors can be made accessible and esthetically pleasing. In the Caribbean, outdoor living can be effortlessly embraced as that region’s climate ensures that space can be enjoyed all year round. Charmaine blurs the lines between the interior and the exterior, subtly bringing the outside in as well taking the inside outside. Interior furniture is used outside and vice versa; courtyards are covered with transparent roofing to preserve the ability to still enjoy the sunshine, sky and clouds while protecting furniture from rain. Interior design smoothly transitions to the outdoors with trees, plants and flowers incorporated into a setting that looks good and is also therapeutic.

“We’ve recreated this outdoor spirit in our home,” Charmaine shared, “we have several different outside ‘rooms’: a couple of secluded areas for quiet contemplation; another that is hidden away and embraced by tropical greenery; and then a couple of larger spaces for lounging, dining, entertaining, chilling and listening to music. The outside is an extension of the inside, which in turn is framed by the jaw dropping seascape.” And it is all accessible to a wheelchair user as needed.

Seniors in the Caribbean tend to age in place, and as family members try to make a home as safe and comfortable as possible, accessible outdoor living spaces becomes relevant, not only for its esthetic qualities but also for the emotional benefit it brings. Charmaine remembers working remotely on the home of her friend’s parents who lives on a nearby island. Mom had dementia so it was important to not change things around that much and she was also using a walker. Clean and uncluttered was needed and that was accomplished, but the most fulfilling was the outdoor space filled with vibrant flowers through which mom was able to navigate safely with her walker!

The people of the Caribbean love their gardens. Because of the pandemic with everyone being at home now more than ever, they want to enjoy their outdoor living, so Charmaine is improving outdoor spaces on the island – balconies, porches, courtyards and terraces are being made pleasing to the eyes and also accessible whenever possible. One of the places on the island where accessible outdoor relaxing space and nature combine, and one which people with disabilities can enjoy, is Agave Gardens. Charmaine’s friend, Barbara Japal, is the owner of this horticultural destination on Antigua & Barbuda – a colourful center for therapeutic experiences in an oasis of calm. On Charmaine’s advice, Agave Gardens now accommodates wheelchair users and has comfortable walking paths for those with other mobility issues. This center serves as a location for learning, teaching, and relaxation through gardening. Workshops are conducted on floral arranging, back yard gardening and seed collecting. They have a ‘Seed Bank’, which aids food security by collecting and storing seeds for local farmers and gardeners. Having embraced accessibility for all, any visitor can enjoy this space while sipping on a glass of Agave Gardens’ signature Lemon Grass Iced Tea.

Charmaine’s design expertise was also used on Antigua’s first speech and language therapy clinic, a project which was very dear to her. Center for the Holistic Advancement of Therapeutic Services (CHATS) is a happy, colourful yet calming space.

As Charmaine and her husband consult on new projects, universal design is an integral part of each conversation. Young couples are encouraged to think twenty or thirty years ahead. “A parent may move in,” Charmaine says “because that’s happening a lot now. Younger people who are building homes have to think about their parents, as it is becoming more common to have multi-generational homes which means that you’re not only designing for the young client but you’re also designing for the client’s parents and children.” Charmaine is heartened that nine out of ten times their advice is accepted which “is good because it’s an expensive task to have to redo a house just to make it easier to live in.”

If you live in a place where the outdoors can be blended into your living space, give it a try. Let nature speak in your ‘outside room’ and think of accessibility.

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