`Will the ongoing pandemic crisis make you forget to build an inclusive world?’, asks Kirsten Galea, Architect & Access Consultant Trainee

Tracey Proudlock on May 26, 2020

I’m sure that like me you have come across a few articles about what the post-Covid world will look like or what changes we will see.  So many people are trying to imagine how the world will change and how they can contribute to building this new world.  The construction industry is no different. But will the changes be inclusive? In the rush to adapt we should not leave anyone behind.

In Shakespeare’s story ‘The Tempest’ he wrote:
“Whereof what’s past is prologue, what to come
In yours and my discharge.”

Meaning that everything that came before doesn’t matter because a new and glorious future is stretching out before you.  And when we create this new future, I hope it will be for everyone and not just for ‘Reference Man’ – as Caroline Criado Perez calls the “one-size-fits-all” solutions.  The rush to adapt and improve for a Covid-19 inflicted world should not leave anyone behind.  We all know how awful isolation feels like now.

So whatever we do, we should make sure to think about all the nine protected characteristic groups under the Equality Act.  Especially disabled people and vulnerable people in our society.  Whatever we re-design or create needs to be inclusive and have due regard to the need to eliminate discrimination. Failure to provide reasonable adjustments will be a breach of the Equality Act 2010.

Creating a better world

The hopeful will dream of a better world.  The dreamer in me is hopeful that we will snap out of the rat race and start looking for the changes we desire in the world around us. The articles I’ve come across in the past few weeks seem also to be wondering whether we will learn from this pandemic and create a better world.

My favourite example of Covid-19 influenced changes is the one we heard recently about Milan, which is one of the worst-hit cities in Italy.  After lockdown has ended Milan is planning to introduce an ambitious scheme to reduce traffic on its roads. Some 22 miles of streets will be converted into cycle lanes and widened walking areas. They are taking the opportunity to be more environmentally conscious with this transformation.

And on 6th May 2020, the Mayor of London followed suit by launching a bold new ‘London Streetspace’ programme.  This will see a rapid change in our streets to accommodate an increase in cycling and walking.  The plan is to give space to new cycle lanes and wider pavements to enable social distancing and to reduce pressure on Tube and buses. They are also reviewing the closure of some streets to through traffic.  Clean, green and sustainable travel will [hopefully] be at the heart of London’s recovery.  But will these quick urban changes consider the restrictions they may impose on some groups of people?

The devil is in the detail

These urban schemes sound great in theory, but in practice we’ll just have to wait and see.  I’m worried that in the haste to apply the required changes we may not take the time every project deserves to ensure there are no barriers for disabled people and vulnerable people.  Hopefully the design teams will consult with inclusive design and access consultants and will look to engage with disability reference groups in co-production workshops. (For more about co-production refer to https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/carry-co-production-inclusive-design-kirsten-galea-she-her-)

Unfortunately we’ve seen people make the same mistakes time and time again.  Even the Government was “reprimanded” just recently for failing to make reasonable adjustments to the lockdown policies for people with disabilities and mental health conditions.  An exemption was quickly put in place and the lockdown guidance amended accordingly. This proves that no one is exempt from considering the rights and needs of disabled people. Unfortunately adapting the built environment after it is constructed is not as easy!

Consulting and involving disabled people will be critical to create a more inclusive world, post Covid-19
Consulting and involving disabled people will be critical to create a more inclusive world, post Covid-19

New ways of doing things

There is a sense of urgency to solve the new issues Covid-19 has created for us in the built environment.  The scientists have made it clear that it is unlikely there will be a vaccine available before the end of 2021.  If we are going to be allowed to go about our daily lives before then, we need to swiftly modify our environments to reduce the future spread of this virus.

Understandably engineers, architects and designers are looking for new and existing technologies that may be incorporated to assist in this, including:

  • Touchless appliances
  • Automatic doors
  • Voice-activated lifts
  • Mobile phone controlled entry

Technology alone may not always be the solution

Technology doesn’t always solve the issue for everyone.  For instance, it is known that voice recognition technologies have a number of biases towards race and gender.  It doesn’t always work smoothly with heavy accents either.  And obviously there are people who are deaf and some without speech. That is why new technologies should always co-exist with existing systems.

Besides, new technologies may also alter the way we currently are used to doing things.  Many users may find new systems difficult to understand.  Signage may need to be included.  To give you an example, I was recently (pre-Covid of course) at a restaurant in my home country Malta with my 91-year-old grandmother and as you do we went to use the toilet.  It was one of those with a communal wash hand basin.  When I came out my grandmother was complaining that there wasn’t any water, so she had had to wipe her hands clean from the hand wash soap with a paper hand towel.  It turned out it was a sensor-activated tap and she had never come across one before.

Tracey Proudlock running an inclusive design workshop to capture feedback from disabled people about services and environments they use
Tracey Proudlock running an inclusive design workshop to capture feedback from disabled people about services and environments they use

How can we be inclusive designers?

What may seem like a simple solution to you and me, may not be so simple to others.  Therefore when one is developing any design, they should ensure it can be accessed, understood and used to the greatest extent possible by all people regardless of their characteristics.  For this, it is best to consider as a starting point the seven Principles of Universal Design:

  • Equitable Use
  • Flexibility in Use
  • Simple and Intuitive Use
  • Perceptible Information
  • Tolerance for Error
  • Low Physical Effort
  • Size and Space for Approach and Use

Everyone benefits if an environment is accessible, usable, convenient and a pleasure to use.  By considering the diverse needs and abilities of all throughout the design process, universal design can help us create products, services and environments that meet people’s needs.  Basically, universal design is good design. And good design makes the world a more inclusive place to live in.  Hopefully leaving no one behind or in isolation.

How can Proudlock Associates help you?

We know there are many aspects to consider during design development. Accessible and inclusive design can be fighting for your attention amongst so many other requirements that it may fall off your radar. We can help you make sure that it doesn’t and help you avoid having to make costly adjustments after everything is constructed.

Should you want an experienced inclusive design and access consultant to give you or your team advice through the design process, or you would like someone to review existing proposals, please don’t hesitate – contact us on 0845 130 1669, or email Tracey Proudlock at tracey@proudlockassociates.com