Lett Architects is a full service architecture firm based in Peterborough. Run by Bill Lett, who has been principal for the last 10 years, the firm has designed major cultural, institutional, and healthcare projects throughout Ontario. In addition to being an award-winning architect, recognized for his design excellence, Lett is also a progressive employer who supports accessibility in the workplace. His recent full-time hiring of Intern Architect Amanda Motyer, who has a severe hearing loss, demonstrates that this firm doesn’t let a disability become a barrier to getting the job done.
Lett explains that when they make a hire, they want a professional who can look after all aspects of the job, from start to finish. “We don’t tend to pigeon hole employees into roles. They need to have that ability to not only work on their own, but also engage with the client, engage with stakeholders, and engage with contractors.” Motyer is no exception to this.
Motyer first came to Lett Architects through a co-op placement from her university several years ago. Initially, Lett thought it interesting that someone with a hearing disability should apply; “We’d never had that level of involvement,” says Lett. But he explains that a trial period is a nice way to get to know someone. After her initial co-op was completed, Motyer went back to school and then returned to do another co-op with them. “When she finished her Master’s degree, it made sense to hire her,” says Lett.
Motyer is involved in all aspects of her projects. She does design work, functional programming, construction documents, and construction administration—where she goes on construction sites and attends job site meetings. She also attends all project meetings that they have internally, and with consultants and clients.
Due to her hearing disability, Motyer is unable to use the phone. She communicates with clients and consultants through email. On the plus side, Lett explains, this enables her to focus more on her work. “By taking away that one piece of technology, what’s clear to everybody, is that it gives her the ability to focus better than anyone else in the office, which is really interesting.”
Lett admits he was a bit concerned at first, as using the phone is big part of their work. If a situation arises in which a phone call is required, another person will make a call on Motyer’s behalf. But Lett is quick to add that because they have multiple people working on any given project, this is never a problem.
Motyer can speechread, which is a combination of lipreading, residual hearing and guesswork. Face to face meetings and video conference calls work best. The only accommodation, says Lett, “is that we have to make sure that if we’re sitting at a table of say more than four people, that Amanda gets the most prominent spot from a visual standpoint, so she can see everyone.”
And they ask that everyone speaks one at a time; if multiple conversations start happening, she can become lost. “Whoever has the conch can speak,” Lett laughs. “It’s not that big a deal.”
In the studio, Motyer has her hearing dog, Tilley, with her. When colleagues need to get Motyer’s attention, they simply call her name. Tilley alerts Motyer and brings her to them.
“From a client experience, they love the fact that we have a working dog in the office.” When Tilley is in the studio, Lett explains, she doesn’t have her vest on, so people are allowed to pet her. “In a lot of cases, it cuts that initial tension in meetings.”
One of the areas of focus the firm has been looking at over the past few years is animal welfare projects. Motyer has a passion for this, and has been very involved. “You can imagine going to the Humane Society, everyone is very excited to see Tilley.” Client feedback has been very positive, says Lett. “Everyone is very accommodating.”
One of the company’s core values is to “maintain levity through discipline.” Lett explains that while they work hard, they try to have fun as well. Motyer takes part in all office activities, whether it is skiing in the winter, or paddle boarding in the summer — where Tilley joins her on the board.
Motyer has also assisted on an accessibility front. She sits on the Accessibility Advisory Committee of Peterborough. As Lett explains, “she’s been able to bring a better focus for us on accessibility issues as we think about our design work.”
Another of the company’s core values is to “engage communities,” which Lett has certainly done through his open hiring practices. By bringing Motyer onto the team, he not only acquires the services of a capable architect, he also sends a message to his clients and contractors that demonstrates his commitment to accessibility.
Lett highlights that Motyer is just as qualified and capable as the other architects in his firm. “She has the education and the ability to work on multiple facets of projects, the same way any other architect in the office would.” The accommodations are easy to do, he says, and they don’t cost anything extra. Lett explains that her disability is not a barrier: “Amanda is just as able.”
This interview and article was done by Accessibility Ontario for the Ontario BIA Association (OBIAA). OBIAA recently completed an 18-month EnAbling Change project, in partnership with the Accessibility Directorate of Ontario, entitled “Accessibility Smart: Make It Your Business”. Accessibility Ontario managed the project, as well as designed and delivered the content. This was the second EnAbling Change project we managed for OBIAA.