This year’s International Day of People with Disabilities recognises that people who live with a disability have been among the most affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. It increases the importance of understanding the needs of people with disabilities, both visible and non-visible, to ensure infrastructure is accessible for everyone, says human factors consultant Suzy Sharpe of Mott MacDonald.
An outwardly fit and healthy person takes the priority seat on a bus reserved for older or disabled people only to attract scornful looks from other passengers who mutter to themselves: “They shouldn’t sit there, they don’t need that seat.”
It’s a common experience for users of public transport who have an ‘invisible’ debilitating condition such as rheumatoid arthritis or multiple sclerosis which can make it painful to stand, even for a short time.
Other disabilities, chronic illnesses and conditions which don’t always have physical signs include speech, visual and hearing difficulties, mental health issues, Crohn’s disease, fibromyalgia, autism and Alzheimer’s. There are many more.
Living with non-visible disabilities makes daily life more demanding for millions of people, not least of which is not being considered ‘disabled’. Their travel experience can be made more stressful, if not traumatic, by unknowing members of the public and staff who challenge them.
This lack of empathy is also evident in how many of the challenges they face have been exacerbated because urban designers, architects and transport planners have overlooked or not necessarily understood their needs. They have effectively been disabled by poor design of transport infrastructure and the built environment.
Examples of this include bus numbers that are hard to read for passengers with dyslexia or dyscalculia, wayfinding signage that people with dementia find confusing, and travel information that is displayed visually but not also announced over a public address system (or vice versa), excluding people with sight and/or hearing problems.
Greater diversity in design teams will enhance understanding of how people living with non-visible disabilities are excluded. But this will only take us so far.
The key to creating inclusive infrastructure is putting people at the centre of the planning and design of infrastructure projects.
This involves engaging with stakeholders across society, but especially groups vulnerable to social exclusion to increase understanding of all types of disability. Their needs and aspirations should always inform design.
Think about your own daily commute to work or weekly shop at the supermarket. Most of us can't imagine what it would be like to make that same journey with a visual, hearing, physical, cognitive or other disability.
It’s why for recent projects we undertook accompanied journeys with people with a range of disabilities to gain better insight into their experiences when travelling on foot or by bus, tram, taxi or train.
First-hand observations, along with structured interviews with end users and site audits of facilities, can help us to analyse how physical design affects people’s behaviour, and how it makes journeys easy or difficult for disabled travellers.
The findings can be used to retrofit remedial solutions to existing infrastructure and design out potential pitfalls before new infrastructure is built.
More inclusive design will often benefit everyone – step-free access, for instance – but the best intentions could also have unintended consequences. Tactile paving at pedestrian crossings and platform edges helps to guide the blind but could make people with Parkinson’s feel unsteady on their feet.
We won’t be able to design out everything. People with different disabilities will have different needs, as will two people with the same disability. Sometimes there will have to be compromises and trade-offs.
Knowledge and perceptions
Improving mobility and accessibility is not all about structural design anyway. Part of the solution lies in improving knowledge and perceptions of disability, not just among architects and engineers, but among those who own and operate our infrastructure.
This is because not all barriers are physical, rather operational and organisational in nature, or attitudinal. A prime example is staff not being disability aware due to lack of training.
Barriers could also be financial, in relation to the cost of transport, or fears over safety and security, or lack of confidence due to a failure of a system to provide a reliable level of service. Trust is a major issue. Will the assistance that I need to help me to get off the train be there when I arrive?
It makes it doubly important to ensure disabled people’s needs and aspirations are captured and fully understood.
If we do, we will be able to assess the degree to which people find current practices unsupportive or unwelcoming, and identify what improvements will encourage and enable more people from disadvantaged groups to access transport services, local amenities and public spaces.
Transformative social change
People-focused design, improved systems and processes, and better knowledge and understanding can all contribute to making our infrastructure more inclusive for people with disabilities, both visible and non-visible.
But as an industry we should never be satisfied with mere compliance with equality and disability legislation. If we are more ambitious, more socially conscious, we can transform communities.
Making transport networks and the built environment more accessible will mean disabled people can lead more fulfilling lives. Perhaps for the first time, they will be able to shop, eat out and socialise independently, and access employment, education and training.
Making full use of a society’s human capital will help to level up the economy by driving inclusive growth and, at the same time, lower levels of deprivation and reduce demand placed on public services.
It’s not just the responsibility of policymakers and regulators to address long-term inequalities and promote social inclusion in this way.
The purpose of infrastructure is to serve society and those who are charged with designing and operating it also have a part to play in ensuring it meets the diverse needs of its citizens.