Remembering Mary Ann Hiserman

20 June, 2009 at 8:08 pm


My friend, Peter, the local real estate agent, came over the other day to see how the building was coming along. He’s been cheering us on, especially during the storms and floods. I found a plan and we walked around the building site.


All on one level

“Great that it’s all on one level,” Peter smiled, pointing to the ramp on the drawing.


We’ve been struggling to work out where to put the ramp, as, for neighburly reasons, our house is not located in the most convenient spot. We’ve been grappling with this for months!


Annotated drawing with ramp 011208 for Steph Z


“Retirement housing”, I whispered, but I was thinking of my architect friend, Mary Ann.


Mary Ann Hiserman, 1979

This house is for her

Had she still been alive, this house would have been for her, with its elegant wheelchair-accessible ramp and spacious turning circles.


We’re not planning a retirement in wheelchairs. But you never know.


At least we know how important accessibility is.


When I was teaching at Berkeley in the seventies, I had a teacher myself, a young woman who was a wheelchair user: Mary Ann Hiserman. She died at 49 after a remarkable life of activism.


She transformed my life, teaching me by example and direct experience what I know about accessibility and Universal Design.


Mary Ann Hiserman was the first wheelchair user to graduate from the Berkeley Master of Architecture Program and one of the first wheelchair users to become a licensed Architect in California. She was an expert on disabled accessibility codes and a tireless advocate for accessibility rights. She worked from 1979 until her death in 1997 and wasresponsible — more than any other person — for the evolution of physical accessibility on the Berkeley campus.


Long before it was mandated or fashionable.


Mary Ann reminded me…

Mary Ann reminded me that an accessible environment is one that’s comfortable and convenient for all. And, when we think about sustainability in our housing, public spaces and buildings, the ageing and increased disability of our population must be a major consideration. Sure, we’re living longer, but many are living with a disability.


In her capacity as campus access coordinator, Mary Ann saw that all campus buildings at Berkeley met handicapped compliance codes. She coordinated the Chancellor’s Committee for the Removal of Architectural Barriers and was an access consultant for two local municipalities.


Mary Ann spent nearly her entire academic and professional career at Berkeley, was a member of the staff since 1977 and received both her BA and master’s degrees in architecture from Berkeley.

What a woman she was!


Unable to walk and severely crippled by polio and childhood arthritis, she nevertheless drew and painted beautifully, traveled widely, campaigned furiously for the rights of people with disability and for accessible environments. And yet she could not walk, dress herself, cook or perform basic hygiene activities without an attendant. She needed five hours’ of attendant care a day.


When Mary Ann left me in a borrowed wheelchair in a so-called “accessible” Berkeley park for an afternoon, I was in tears when she returned. Half a dozen people had come up to pray for me, offer access to miracles and speak to me as though I was a child.


Ws self handicapping 1978

Self-Handicapping, Berkeley, 1978


This “infantilizing” experience reminded me of how the able-bodied members of our community make the rules and define the priorities. The story of our lunch in a Reno casino is apocryphal. I screamed back at the waitress who asked “what the wheelchair wanted for lunch” and Mary Ann just smiled.


It’s not always easy building an accessible house in the bush. But it’s not impossible, either. Our house is a metaphor for the values we hold true.


And accessibility, honouring the memory of my fearless friend, is one of those values.


For photos and stories about this remarkable woman:


And here’s our ramp. Finally!


Front ramp 0312



It’s so convenient.


And every time I walk up the ramp, I remember my courageous, beautiful friend, Mary Ann, and our wonderful times together!


1 comment

  1. I worked with Mary Ann in the late ’80s in the Architects and Engineers group. She was indeed an amazing person, smart as a whip — a great artist and human being. We did not keep in touch, so I only learned of her passing a few years ago. She gave me a set of greeting cards sher had designed, a line drawing of Notre Dame, that I have treasured and hoarded for decades. Just sent my last one today, for Father’s Day. Thank you for this lovely remembrance of a wonderful spirit.

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