RIAI CPD Seminar, “Introduction to the revised Part M”
The Grand Hotel, Malahide, 27 June 2000
ASPIRATIONS OF THE DISABLED COMMUNITY
Remarks by Paul P Hogan, FCSD, FRSA, FSDI, Hon.ANCAD
Some years ago, I was invited to take part in a conference which was being held in London on the subject of design and disability. It was a wet and windy morning when I arrived at the conference venue and, after paying off my taxi, I found myself confronted by a number of stone steps leading to the entrance. There were no hand rails. It was quickly apparent to me that, what with the gale force wind and my disability, there was no way that I could mount the steps in safety. The choice was between waiting in the rain for someone to come along who was prepared to help me, or an undignified crawl with attendant damage to clothes and self-esteem. You will appreciate the irony of the situation. Inside the building, a warm and dry collection of experts are discussing issues of design and disability while outside, in the cold and wet, a genuinely disabled person is unable to gain access.
Every person with a disability has a repertoire of such stories, some humorous, some humiliating, some infuriating. They are all concerned with stupid and unnecessary barriers to the full participation of people in society and they nearly always involve a failure in design. So, at the outset, may I say that I welcome anything which will improve access to buildings, public and private, for all people and, in so far as the revised Part M Building Regulations represent a step in this direction, I unreservedly commend them. The devil is in the detail, of course, and, like all of you, I look forward to studying the import and impact of the revised regulations.
I am a little uncomfortable with title assigned to my contribution this morning, as it seems to imply a role as spokesman of the “disabled community” when I have no such mandate. I speak only for myself, and I am sure other people with disabilities would have quite different views from mine. And this leads me to an important point: the diversity of people with disabilities. Until quite recently, the term “the disabled” used to be widely used. It was and is a categorization which is so broad as to be meaningless and which inter alia depersonalizes those referred to. What we have are people with disabilities, a very imprecisely defined group, with as varied talents and aspirations as may be found in any cross section of the community. These are people with physical, sensory and learning disabilities resulting from a variety of causes; congenital, illness, accident. They are young and old, although, of course, certain conditions are associated with the process of ageing.
However, one generality can be made, and it applies not just in Ireland but throughout Europe: people with disabilities are in general poor. Every survey confirms this bleak conclusion. People with disabilities have lower incomes, have less access to employment and education and are marginalized in a variety of ways. In this country, 80 per cent of disabled people are unemployed and are likely to live in poverty, be educated or trained in segregated services away from their communities, have no access to regular and reliable transport, and live on or be on a waiting list for segregated housing or residential settings. The numbers of such people are also increasing through better healthcare and increased life-expectancy.
I am unable to say what the aspirations of people with disabilities are. They are probably as varied as the aspirations of this group and, as with any group, are tied up with issues of family, income, career and self-image. However, I think I can say with some confidence what people with disabilities do NOT want. They do not want charity and they do not want to be patronized. They don’t want special treatment and they don’t want to have to enter buildings through side doors. The don’t want to have to ask for help going up or down stairs and they don’t want to be humiliated by being unable to enter a toilet or being unable to close the door when they do. They don’t want to have to decline invitations from friends because of anticipated embarrassment (and this is central to the revision of Part M). They don’t want to be excluded from participation in the normal things which society takes for granted: taking a bus, going to the pub or the pictures, having a job and paying taxes, living independently and contributing to the economy. It’s not a lot to ask is it? And its denial, I suggest, is a scandal and a violation of human rights.
Some of these issues have nothing to do with Part M but I think it is important to put the revisions in context. Morever, the sidelining of people with disabilities is most dramatically seen in the design of the built environment where barriers to free movement abound. Equally apparent are the barriers to information which exclude people with sensory deprivation or learning difficulties. The exclusion is sometimes near total and, as a result, people with disabilities are invisible. If you need evidence of this, just look around you. It is generally accepted that 10 per cent of the population has a significant physical disability. It follows, does it not, that one in ten of the people you pass in the street, share a restaurant with or sit beside in the cinema should be noticeably impaired. Of course, the reality is quite different. Years ago, when I traveled more extensively than I do now, I developed an informal measure which I called my visibility index. It worked like this. Wherever I was, I took station in the centre of town and counted the numbers of people with obvious impairments who passed. You will not be surprised that the one in ten figure was never reached, but what was striking was that in many great cities I never saw a person with a disability during my watch. The truth is that the environment in most cities is so hostile, uncomfortable and even dangerous, that only the bravest and most determined venture abroad.
One hundred years ago, ninety per cent of the world’s population lived on the land or in rural areas. Today, more than half live in cities which are, according to Richard Rogers, the most important destroyers of the eco system. They are also in many cases centres of pollution, poverty, crime and inhuman living conditions. For this reason, the Barcelona Declaration, promulgated in the city of that name in 1995, which commits municipal governments to a range of measures to meet the needs of people with disabilities is of great importance. Nearly 400 European cities including, I am glad to say, Dublin Limerick and Sligo, have so far acceded to the Declaration which is one of a number of initiatives which have radically altered the disability/rehabilitation landscape in recent years. Others are the United Nations Standard Rules for the Equalisation of Opportunity, the Americans with Disability Act, Article 13 of the Amsterdam Treaty and significant pieces of legislation passed in most countries of the European Union.
To this list I would add the establishment of the European Institute for Design and Disability in 1993 which gave formal recognition to the links between design and disability and to the concern of the design profession.
While regulations concerning accessibility for people with disabilities were brought into Swedish planning and building legislation as early as 1966, interest in Ireland only took off with the United Nations Year of the Disabled, when badly designed ramps proliferated everywhere and were probably the cause of many accidents. Among the more famous of these were the 1:1 ramps on Sandymount strand. When outraged wheelchair users complained, the alleged response was that these were intended for women with baby buggies. These ramps, and others like them, reflected a model which perceived disability in terms of wheelchairs. This was understandable in that the international symbol of disability was, and continues to be, a representation of a person in a wheelchair. However, as is well known, wheelchair users constitute only a small minority of the disabled population. The biggest group is those with mobility problems caused by disease, accident, old age or sensory impairment. People who just find it difficult to get around. And for these, architects continued to design buildings which denied them access or which imposed severe physical hardship when they did succeed in gaining entry.
I have often wondered why this should be so and have come to the conclusion that it is due to a failure of imagination. I am sure there is no ill-will, but is it possible that many buildings are detailed by middle-class young men and women in the prime of vigorous life who have no conception of what it is to be old or disabled, and that nothing in their formation has equipped them to design for such people? How else to explain the vast, exhausting public buildings, the endless corridors of airports, the inaccessible toilets and the stairs with one handrail. If you are one-armed or, as is common, have a weak grip in one hand, then life is indeed a lottery.
On the other hand, it really doesn’t take much imagination to realise that deficiencies in the design of products or of the man-made environment press heaviest on people with disabilities. These are people who have lost, or never had, the capacity to adapt to the deficiencies and failures in the environment which most people take for granted. For them design must work first time. Whether the problem is one of poorly located street furniture which impedes the blind person, or a door knob which literally cannot be operated by a person with arthritis, the reason is nearly always a failure in design.
It doesn’t have to be like this. Placing street furniture in a rational position takes no longer than putting it where it will obstruct the unwary or visually impaired. Forming the door opener to suit the arthritis suffer’s grip uses no more material. It is a question of thought, which was, you may recall, Gio Ponti’s definition of design.
Simple observation tells us that good building design can facilitate, inspire and raise the quality of life. On the other hand, bad, uncaring or dangerous design can frustrate, depress and make the life of the disabled person into one long obstacle course. In a slogan coined by the European Institute for design and Disability, Good Design Enables, Bad Design Disables.
The role of the architect in helping to bring about a truly integrated society is of crucial importance. The dwelling or personal space is the first link in the chain leading to the participation of people with disabilities. In many ways it is the most important, because the confidence gained in the domestic setting will enable the person with a disability to confront other barriers. Rehabilitation specialists often bemoan the eroding of hard-won gains when their discharged patients are placed in an unfavourable environment or lack the essential means to conduct a normal productive life.
These are people whose lives may be transformed by better design, which will benefit the whole community, as distinct from those who need the products of assistive technology to enable them to live independently.
The first group is covered by the concept of universal design that has gained strength over the past decade and has been the subject of a number of recent international conferences. Universal design is a reaction to exclusive and excluding design. Until very recently, most products and environments were designed for a non-existent “average man” who was young, enjoyed perfect health and had the physical attributes of an Olympic athlete. Design training reflected this Platonic ideal and an historical reality in which old age was exceptional and people with disabilities impoverished and short-lived.
Under principles of universal design, design is directed at the greatest possible number ― a market segment that includes sighted and blind people, right and left-handed, mobile and wheelchair user, the temporarily disabled and the permanently incapacitated, and so on.
Jim Sandhu of the University of Northumbria, a leading authority on universal design, says that it “recognizes that accessible systems, reliable information sources and enabling environments can maximize choice and enhance the ability of the individual to live independently and execise citizenship proactively”. Stressing the changing nature of design, Sandhu says that universal design “necessarily implies a multi-disciplinary team approach with input from a broader range of specialities and expertise, such as: transport, demography, sociology, human factors, etc.”, with such synergy being crucial to the further evolution of universal design.
Putting these ideas into practice is not, of course, easy. Terms like universal design, design for all, barrier-free design, etc., come trippingly off the tongue but giving them reality represents a severe challenge for designers. In many ways, it is easier for industrial designers. Industrial design is a young profession and is essentially technology driven. By contrast, architecture, it seems to me, carries with it a lot of baggage in terms of tradition and established vocabularies. That is why it is important to have agreed minimum standards, as in Part M, and guidance, in the form of continuing advice and research reflecting developments in technology and ideas like those of the adaptable house and the smart house.
The first of these, the adaptable house, is based on such a simple and sensible idea that one feels it should be adopted almost without discussion. As defined by the National Housing Council of the Netherlands (NWR), which has been a pioneer in this field, it is “the realization of newly built or renovated housing space which is not specifically adapted to disabled occupants, but is designed in such a way that it can easily and relatively inexpensively be adapted at a later stage to the needs of an occupant who becomes handicapped”.
Adaptable housing recognizes that during its lifecycle every home will have to accommodate people with special needs (elderly people, pregnant women, young children, people who want to work at home, people who are ill for a considerable time as well as people with disabilities) and makes provision for organic development and change. The initial cost is estimated at a paltry one per cent of the total building cost.
The smart house is something different and is of great importance to people with severe physical disabilities. Using a computer, controlled by a mouthstick or headstick, with breath or sip-n-puff switches, people with minimal or no motor functions can manipulate robotic assistive appliances and direct them to carry out a variety of tasks. Environmental control systems can be regulated, wheelchairs driven, and people who would otherwise be excluded can enter the world of work. For the blind, there are machines that read text, speaking clocks and elevators, and computerized navigational systems. For those who cannot speak, there are artificial speech synthesisers.
The intelligent home is a concept to be developed around the user whether able-bodied or disabled. Compensation for sensory functions is possible when the home is provided with inputs from its own sensors for fire and smoke alarms, temperature, light and movement. The information can be reacted to automatically (a call to the fire brigade for example) or as decided by the user. For people who are hard of hearing, visual indicators of alarms and doorbells can be provided. For the person with reduced mobility, the system provides interfaces with lighting, radio, TV, kitchen appliances, central heating, door openers, computer, telephone, intercom, etc.
The application of this wondrous technology has been of immense value to the community at large as well as to people with disabilities. We can today hear voices which would otherwise be silent. One thinks of Davoren Hanna, Christopher Nolan and Stephen Hawking.
But there is a potential dark side which Bastien Treffers, a Dutch disability activist, has warned about, asking rhetorically, “will the person with a serious physical disability become a new “caveman”, transported by a steel hoist, a so called steel nurse, and clothed and fed by a robot who will also be charged with changing his library books through a terminal?”
This is not altogether fanciful. Much of the development in this field is driven by academics and public service providers who, whether they admit it or not, see “the disabled” as a problem to be coped with, and technology as something that makes the work of carers easier and optimises the time of highly paid professionals. Just where this can lead is illustrated by a report on an interactive audio-visual telecommunications project where elderly people and those caring for them were linked by video telephony. Describing the project, the report states that it enabled the carer “to monitor the proper performance of physical exercises the client is to carry out”. When I read that I thought at once of George Orwell’s 1984 where precisely that chilling scene is enacted as Winston Smith goes through his routines under the stern eye of Big Brother’s representative.
Designers, and architects in particular, are the first line of defence against such excesses. They must mediate and adapt fast developing technologies and ensure that they are humanised and reflect the needs of those with whom they interact. After all, no one wants to live in something which is a cross between an electronics laboratory and a hardware shop.
Working with people with disabilities and rehabilitation professionals, architects should develop buildings and environments which are accessible, secure, economical, respectful of the environment, and which enrich the lives of those who use or live in them.
Whatever the merits of the revisions presented here today, the ultimate goal of Part M should be the abolition of Part M. There should be no need for such regulations, as the scandal of the exclusion of people with disabilities takes its place beside bear baiting, slavery and capital punishment. Just as no one now campaigns for votes for women, so in the future no one should talk about accessible buildings. After all, what other kind of buildings could there be?
Paul Hogan co-founded the European Institute for Design and Disability in 1992 and served as its president for the first three years. Educated as a designer in Dublin and Copenhagen, he has worked in over forty countries as a consultant for the European Union, the United Nations and the World Bank.