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Is inclusive design achievable?

Jane Duncan

Do architects have the skills and attitude we need to create truly inclusive environments? Is it even possible to design architecture for everyone?

‘My disability exists not because I use a wheelchair, but because the broader environment isn’t accessible’ – disability advocate Stella Young

In 2012 millions of us watched top athletes with physical impairments demonstrate super-human abilities as they competed in the London Paralympics. There is no question that a major shift in perspective took place. But with just a month to go to the Rio Paralympics, how confident are we that over the last four years the built environment has become more accessible?

Some people are still uncomfortable about disability: they don’t understand it and fear what they don’t understand. Architects are in pole position to reclaim environments for a wide range of user requirements. Isn’t it about time we challenged the polarised separation of ‘able-bodied’ and ‘disabled’, and realised that we just need to design for people?

Good design is inclusive – it makes places everyone can use. How buildings are designed affects our ability to move, see, hear and communicate effectively. It is vital to remove the barriers that create undue effort and separation and enable everyone to use buildings equally, confidently and independently. This provides opportunities to deploy our creative and problem solving skills for real people in all their variety, removing the frustrations experienced by many disabled people.

Isn’t it about time we challenged the polarised separation of ‘able-bodied’ and ‘disabled’, and realised that we just need to design for people?

Considering a more diverse picture will often achieve superior solutions that benefit everyone, exceed minimum technical specifications, and help people use developments safely, with dignity, comfort, convenience and confidence.

The RIBA’s CPD programme covers a whole range of inclusive design topics from accessible housing to designing for older people, equipping all of us with the skills we need to provide inclusive design.

By challenging (or removing) the idea of normal – there is no such thing as an average user – we can widen our capabilities beyond relying on anthropometrics and ergonomic data. Employers are starting to recognise that it’s smart business to have a diverse workforce, one in which many views are represented and everyone’s talents are valued. Well, disability is part of diversity, and it’s not just about fairness: it makes good business sense to create accessible spaces. A rigorous inclusive design process mitigates business risk and ensures repeatable design success.

I had the pleasure of launching a brilliant accessible hotel design competition recently which seeks to create fully accessible solutions.
The ‘purple pound’ figure from the government’s Department of Work & Pensions shows that households with a disabled person have a combined income of £212 billion after housing costs. Research has also shown that disabled people find shopping the most difficult experience for accessibility, followed by going to the cinema, theatre and concerts. Drinking and eating out at pubs and restaurants was third on the list.
We can change that.

Bridget Bartlett, chair of the CIC Diversity Panel, said: ‘To build really healthy communities all sections of society should be catered for within our structures and infrastructure. Buildings that don’t work for people have no place in their future.’   

She was right on the inclusive button.

RIBA to Launch New Fellow Membership

The RIBA is delighted to launch the new Fellow Membership category, which will open for applications this August. This recognises chartered members who have made a significant contribution to architecture. It will celebrate the sometimes unsung heroes of the profession and create a benchmark to which future generations of architects can aspire.