What will it take to make a truly wheelchair accessible world?
Part of a truly wheelchair accessible world is recognising that we’re not there yet. Councils, town planners and builders are trying, but there are a lot of impediments to success when it comes to creating a truly wheelchair accessible world.
Thinking about things beyond the blue sign and the ramp is important. We know the clangers in society where the disability office is placed on a floor with no lift. Or the issues where pavement prohibits access to buildings that are properly kitted out.
Today, we’re taking on the pointy part of the wheelchair accessible conversation to speak about what we’re up against when trying to create a truly wheelchair accessible world
Is it history’s fault or the way we think about design?
We love a wonderful old city with historical flourishes and architecture. That is, until we must deal with the situations that come with it. Building around old structures that didn’t account for modern living is tough enough. But when you add wheelchairs to the equation, chances are the thinking is about getting by instead of making improvements.
You can’t blame architects from yesteryear or throw out everything we have and start anew. But we can do better in the way we plot and plan.
There seems to be an exhaustion surrounding thinking outside the restoration box. But what if we could get wheelchair accessibility to move from the shadows and onto the planner’s pages on a regular basis?
Some of the ways we can make older cities wheelchair accessible and into newer ways of thinking are to:
Use opportunities wisely
Broken pavement, roadworks, new rail lines, busted water mains, laying of internet cables, new property developments- these are just some of the missed opportunities passing us by when it comes to improving the urban landscape for people with disability.
If we’re fixing it for buildings, pipelines and bicycle lanes, why not make the consideration of rebuilding using wheelchair friendly materials a standard practise? How many footpaths could have been better used in the laying of Australia’s NBN or during NYC sewer system upgrades?
What if councils and town planners and property developers and architects shared information more to maximise these opportunities? What if there was physical and financial assistance to make wiser choices?
How interesting things could become if wheelchair accessibility moved from the last page of the plan to the front!
Be smart about reconstruction
There’s no doubt about it, disasters are terrible. The natural disasters that take out towns and cities are costly and problematic on infrastructure levels. Psychologically, they often make people feel wary and scared of their homes and their streets. What if there was a better way to utilise reconstruction?
The Black Saturday fires in Victoria gave the government a unique opportunity to rebuild the towns. Making them more disability accessible helped bring more tourism to the town. A painful time that was synonymous with a loss of life and deeply emotional time was rebuilt with a new vision and new hope. Similarly, Hurricane Sandy in the USA gave sections of the community to rebuild shared and private spaces with disability in mind.
This not only helps to overcome pre-existing issues with disability accessibility, it opens a new tourism market, invites new residents and it significantly reduces safety risks across the entire population by planning with disability and injury in mind.
Move beyond ‘compliance culture’ and innovate
Sara Hendren built the Slope Intercept as a completely modifiable ramp that could append to buildings because she was sick of the ‘tack on approach’ of existing wheelchair ramp offerings. By taking it portable, Hendren aims to move people out of service entries, back alley arrivals and up impossible inclines.
What if similar approaches were adopted on a wider scale? Red tape and safety issues are often cited as the challenge points. Of course, no one wants increased risk or public liability- or the insurance costs that go with it.
Yet the wheelchair users and disability community are a hell of a lot braver and innovative than those that want to protect us. With the appropriate checks and balances, why shouldn’t innovation drive accessibility if it’s cheaper, easier to apply and often a better solution?
Reward better behaviours and smarter choices
Why do we live in a society where venues, buildings and place-makers wait a negative reaction from people with disability before they act? Imagine how much would change if policy makers lowered the barriers to accessibility instead of penalising for non-compliance.
The argument is often the cost involved with upgrading against the lack of traffic from patrons with disabilities. Yet people with wheelchairs want greater access and businesses want more customers. So why not support and encourage positive change instead of making it a scary, punishable offence? And why not apply different technology and innovation to solve these issues? Give people access to better information and allow them to make sounder design choices.
Move beyond the ramp into the future
Disability isn’t always serviced by placing a ramp or a lift into a building. Why aren’t we thinking about developing and designing structures that solve the disability equation first?
We must work smarter to be able to keep up with demand.
Let’s face facts here. We’ve got an increasing population, which means more children and more elderly than ever before. Catering to someone with a disability more than covers the space, gradient, propulsion and safety considerations required to cater to these two groups.
We also know that we are seeing increases in things such as cancer, obesity, sensory triggered disabilities such as autism as well as increased mental health. When people are unwell, they need to be better supported to move around the cities and transport facilities. It’s hard when you’re sick from chemo, overloaded on a sensory level and generally feeling crowded.
We’re basically working on a model in architecture that caters to the idealised able-bodied man envisaged by Swiss architect, Le Corbusier.
Le Corbusier believed all buildings and public spaces should be comfortable for the average man. Standardised sizing that revolve around his version of accessibility as he moves through place or building have little to no relevance in society today. Disability was not considered in a physical sense or as a social constraint.
As a result, we cater to an extremely thin wedge of society in a lot of the practises seen in city planning historically. Some would say these measurements still influence choice today.
How can we possibly bridge the gaps between our cities and the needs of people with a variety of different considerations when places are built on the sturdy shoulders of the average man? If it continues to influence modern architecture, what hope then has wheelchair accessibility really got?
True wheelchair accessibility won’t happen without better thinking
Humans have an amazing capacity for problem solving and imagining new ways to crack the same puzzles. Yet part of the issue we face with thinking in terms of the wheelchair accessible is that it seems like it is too hard. Changing thinking and approach, using opportunities better and not being afraid to explore ideas could revolutionise the way cities and towns, planners and architects, property developers and councils, and more approach construction.
But we must shake off the preconceptions and the idea that accessibility is a small issue with a huge cost attached. This is about solving the pointy end first and trickling down the benefits.
We’ve talked about the commercial potential that is being missed previously on the blog. But it’s more than that.
By moving away from Le Corbusier as our benchmark, we create smarter cities. Ones we can all enjoy.