JCJ Architecture has designed a prototypical facility where people with disabilities who have been victims of crimes can be interviewed and examined without being re-traumatized.
By Amanda Abrams
JCJ Architecture likes to say that well-designed buildings should advocate for their occupants. That concept is particularly true for a unique project the company recently focused on.
In 2019, the leaders of JCJ, a national architecture firm, were contacted by an Ohio organization that was looking to do something groundbreaking for people with disabilities. The group, called Adult Advocacy Centers (AACs), was well aware of some sobering statistics: nationally, people with disabilities are at least 2.5 times more likely to be the victims of crime than non-disabled individuals, but their crimes are reported and prosecuted less often than those committed against members of the general population. In many states, including Ohio, there are very few services targeted to crime victims with disabilities.
In response, AACs wanted to build facilities that would make the criminal justice system accessible to crime victims with disabilities—places where they could be interviewed and examined that were created specifically with their needs in mind.
AACs chose JCJ for the design because of the firm’s innovative work on Barrier Free Living, a New York City housing and services center for survivors of domestic abuse with disabilities. Superficially, the two projects seem similar, but JCJ principal Peter Bachmann says that the AACs project required a steep learning curve.
“There was no model for this. None,” he says. “It’s a prototypical facility.”
The project’s cutting-edge nature comes from the principles behind it. The adult advocacy centers aren’t meant to be simply accessible to people with mobility challenges, mental health conditions, intellectual disabilities, and hearing or vision impairments. The key intention behind them is to create a trauma-responsive space where crime victims with disabilities are accommodated as much as possible.
“People who will be visiting, they’ll be there at one of the worst times in their lives,” says Katherine Yoder, AACs’ executive director, explaining the thinking behind the centers’ design. “How can this space be as empowering as possible for the person, so that that’s not something they’re struggling with, too?” That is, how can the building be designed so that the activities that take place inside aren’t re-traumatizing?
Finding an answer to that question required starting from scratch on a plan that had people with disabilities in mind from the start, rather than working with a template that would then be altered to accommodate accessibility needs. That meant JCJ not only had to develop a detailed understanding of what the AACs organization had in mind, but also had to hold interviews with a range of stakeholders, including the space’s future users.
That might be standard procedure for many architecture projects, but in this case, it was particularly vital, explains Yoder. “Often, architects have a lot of information about the disability community, but don’t include them [in the design process]—and there are certain obvious things we’d see that they might not be aware of until it’s too late,” says Yoder, who is herself disabled.
For example, figuring out where to place Braille signage so that it’s practical for someone with vision impairment, or how to design countertops that can be used by people both with and without disabilities, is best done in partnership with those who will eventually be using a facility.
JCJ also met with organizations that would be participating in investigations in the space: the Ohio Attorney General’s office, Ohio Association of Forensic Nurses, Ohio Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services, and the Ohio organization Advocacy and Protective Services.
“We consulted with all of them,” says Bachmann. “We’d ask, ‘Where are the issues of great sensitivity? Did we get this right?’” In most cases, it was a back and forth, iterative process that required repeat conversations.
Sometimes, JCJ had to radically alter its plans because of those discussions. For example, the firm had assumed that a soothing, trauma-responsive environment would include big windows that allowed daylight to flood the facility.
“And the answer was that natural light was 100 percent what they wanted, but these folks [crime victims with disabilities] are in such sensitive shape, so traumatized, that sometimes even seeing a bird fly overhead, or seeing someone walk by the window, can be too much for them,” says Bachmann. In response, the JCJ team created windows that allowed light in, but maintained privacy and limited visibility.
The need for privacy wound up driving many layout considerations. Crime victims and their support people will arrive at the 18,000-square foot facility through a main entrance. Quickly, however, they will leave the main area to move down a hallway, which is curved to limit sightlines and increase privacy for all visitors.
They’ll enter individual pods, each of which is a contained unit. There are five of them, and they all include a small waiting room and bathroom, plus a state-of-the-art interview room that is comfortable and cozy—distinctly unlike the interrogation rooms featured on crime shows. The pods are all connected to one of three medical examination rooms, where forensic nurse examiners specifically trained to work with people with disabilities collect evidence.
JCJ designed the entire facility with warm materials meant to create a reassuring environment, but the pods differ slightly; each one is intended for a different cluster of disabilities. The pod created for those with physical mobility issues, for example, has less furniture and uses materials that won’t impede movement. Another, for those with sensory challenges, has subdued lighting and low-key acoustics. There are also suites for people with hearing or vision impairment, significant mental health issues, and intellectual disabilities. And each pod has its own exit, created so that those leaving the building are unable to see others exiting at the same time.
The site will also include a 5,600 square foot training facility, where AACs can educate a range of professionals. There’s a huge need for education on how to respond to victims of crime with disabilities, says Yoder. “People in almost every state of the nation are taking our forensic interview training; other countries, too. So we’re kind of pioneering things.” The training building will be a place where members of law enforcement and security officers from psychiatric hospitals, for example, can learn best practices.
The building is also designed as an emergency shelter, with generators that will allow people to charge their wheelchairs and refrigerate oxygen tanks. That function is more critical than able-bodied people might realize. “Often, people with disabilities suffer much more [in disasters] than those without,” says Yoder.
Yoder and her team would like to use some of the design principles developed in their work with JCJ to create a mobile unit that could offer forensic interviews to people living in institutional facilities or regions like tribal lands that cover a wide area.
For now, however, AACs is focused on identifying funding to build the first of what the group hopes to be ten centers that will be scattered around Ohio. The designs were paid for by a federal grant from the Victims of Crime Act, and Yoder and her colleagues are now working with Ohio’s Congressional delegation to locate a funding stream for the brick-and-mortar buildings.
Once that occurs and appropriate properties have been found, AACs will come back to JCJ to adapt the plans for each site. And Bachmann says he’s excited to see how the plans evolve after the first center is built. “That’s one cool thing about prototyping,” he says. “You can build the first one and learn from it."