Paralympic swimmer and design consultant Ileana Rodriguez is passionate about the freedom of movement. She believes that the world would be a better place if it provided full access for people with disabilities to all public places, “not as an afterthought, but as an intrinsic part of the built environment.” 

Two years ago, Rodriguez, 35, founded the Houston-based firm I Design Access LLC to help design facilities for athletes at the Lima 2019 Pan American Games. She is now the main accessibility consultant for the International Paralympic Committee (IPC). She also served as an accessibility specialist for museum exhibits at the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Museum, which opened in Colorado Springs last year.

“The work Ileana does in the field of accessibility has greatly helped to create a more inclusive built environment in the world of major sporting events,” says Eugene Uys, an associate director for major sports events with Arup. “In an industry that for many years has not always rigorously striven to achieve high standards of accessibility, her involvement is now helping to change minds and practices.”

Rodriguez says, “The reality is that most environments are not friendly to people with disabilities,” adding that many architects still avoid accessibility issues. “They need to learn to see it as an opportunity to make a better design, rather than a back-end code challenge that costs more to implement,” she says.

Not an Afterthought

Above all, accessible solutions can’t be a design afterthought. “They should never be pushed to the back or side of a building.” She also advocates making accessible design part of the core curriculum in architecture schools. 

Rodriguez has direct experience with navigating difficult environments. Born in Cuba, she stopped walking at the age of 13 due to a malformation of her spine. In 2000 she came to the U.S. with her mother to seek physical therapy. The rest of her family—her father, a brother and a sister—arrived in Miami three years later. Because her family lived near a beach in Cuba, she began swimming at an early age and competed in high school, but it wasn’t until she was working on her master’s degree that she began to train for the Paralympic Games, urged on by a former coach. Rodriguez swam for the U.S. at the 2012 games in London.

After she completed both bachelor’s and master’s degrees in architecture, Rodriguez landed a job at HKS, where she worked for five years on hospitality, higher education and residential projects before leaving to start her own firm.

In 2017 she coordinated accessibility design for the Kazakhstan Paralympic Training Facility, one of the first disabled-accessible buildings in the country. “That was tough,” she says, “because their building codes often conflicted directly with accessibility needs.”

Denis Pavlovic, a senior manager at the IPC, says, “Ileana has contributed to more inclusivity of the Games, both Olympic and Paralympic. The outcome [of her work] is that all stakeholders with different types of impairments have the ability to move freely without barriers around and inside competition and non-competition venues.” 

Back to ENR's 2020 Top 25 Newsmakers