In the spirit of the “special relationship” between the U.S. and the U.K., I invited our friend and colleague Jane Duncan to take over this spot this month. She is president of the 40,000-member Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) and director of Jane Duncan Architects + Interiors, an award-winning practice in Buckinghamshire, England. Jane ran for office on pledges to improve pride, fees, and diversity within the architecture profession—and she is doing much to make good on all of them. —Thomas Vonier, FAIA
Do architects have the skills and attitude that we need to create truly inclusive environments? Is it even possible to design architecture for everyone?
It’s normal to be different, and we are all different. I am 5 feet 1 inch tall and can’t reach stuff. My creative solution was to marry someone 6 feet 3 inches tall, but I realize that this is a solution not open to everyone.
The Paralympics have been an eye-opener for me and for millions who watched people with a plethora of physical impairments become superhumans. There is no question that a major shift in perspective took place, that the world woke up and applauded people with disability.
“My disability exists not because I use a wheelchair, but because the broader environment isn’t accessible,” said disability activist Stella Young.
People are still uncomfortable and do not understand disability—and people 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 polarized separation of “able-bodied” and “disabled,” and realized that we just need to design for people?
There is a huge range of ability within our population, from the helpless infant to the elderly person with dementia and everything in between, including chronic and temporary states of mental and physical impairment.
Good design is inclusive design, about designing for people and not about design for disabled people, and making places everyone can use. How they are designed affects our ability to move, see, hear, and communicate effectively. Removing barriers that create undue effort and separation enables everyone to participate equally, confidently, and independently in everyday activities.
This creates opportunities to deploy our creative and problem-solving skills for real people in all their variability, removing the frustrations and hardship experienced by many disabled people, older people, and families with small children.
While the needs of wheelchair users and mobility-impaired people are important, it is also necessary to understand the barriers experienced by people with learning difficulties, those with mental illnesses, and visual and hearing impairments. 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.
By challenging (or removing) the idea of normal, we can widen our capabilities beyond relying upon anthropometrics and ergonomic data. Employers are recognizing that it is smart business to have a diverse workforce, one in which many views are represented and everyone’s talents are valued. 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.
Main Street businesses could effectively be turning away one in five customers by not accommodating disabled people; households with a disabled person have a huge combined disposable income. Research shows that disabled people find shopping the most difficult experience in terms of accessibility, followed by going to the cinema, theater, or concerts. Drinking and eating out came third on the list.
We need to develop the skills to provide inclusive design: Let’s grasp this one.