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Thursday
Nov192015

More Inclusive Design 

Architects and designers have a responsibility to ensure their designs are as inclusive and accommodating as possible. Image © Gensler

Have you ever had the opportunity to watch Murderball? Wheelchair rugby, or Murderball as it’s affectionately called, is one of the most high-endurance, tactical and intense games out there. And when Toronto, Canada hosted the Parapan Am Games, I had the opportunity to be a spectator.

I’d heard that the sport combines elements of Formula One racing, rugby, basketball and chess. After watching it, I couldn’t agree more. It’s also one of the most inspiring spectator sports I’ve attended. Wheelchair rugby athletes need to be creative; they need to be prepared to push back on people and obstacles; they need to look at space differently and not be afraid to act on their ideas. Just watch this two minute video if you need convincing. Watching the sport also made me think about how these athletes made it to venue. Were they able to find accessible parking? Were washrooms accessible and adequate for people confined to wheelchairs? Were they able to easily access services in the building prior to the game?

As an accessibility consultant who focuses on the built environment and design, I have had opportunities over the years to meet many amazing people and talk about accessibility and inclusive design. We’ve talked about the good and the bad, as well as what the future holds. The last 50 years have seen significant progress in terms of overall inclusion and the passage of legislation that mandates certain aspects of inclusive design. But we still have a long ways to go, and it’s our job to help shape the future of inclusive design.

The field of accessibility and inclusive design is relatively new in Canada. Ontario was the first province to have its own Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act (AODA), which became law in 2005. Many other provinces are following suit, and I fully expect that all provinces in Canada will have their own accessibility legislation within the next 50 years.

Even with the AODA and Ontario being the leader in accessibility legislation in Canada, Ontario is still, on the whole, very inaccessible. Property owners are starting to understand how inaccessible their buildings are, and too many inaccessible facilities are still being constructed. This status quo is unacceptable. Persons with disabilities now have a platform and an opportunity to expect equal rights when it comes to accessing services and spaces. Designers must help them.

The many facets of inclusive design. Image © David Lam

So how can the design community help enhance accessibility and incorporate inclusivity into our projects? How can we inspire our clients to go beyond minimum code requirements when it comes to accessibility and inclusion? How can we leverage the power of design to create a better, more inclusive world? How can we drive designers, both present and future, to push the boundaries of design to create inspiring and accessible spaces?

Let’s start by taking a quick look into the statistics. Fourteen percent of Canadians reported having a disability in 2012—seven percent of these qualify as mobility disabilities. In the next 50 years, that number is projected to grow to 20 percent of Canadians having some form of a disability. In addition, seniors make up the fastest-growing age group in Canada. By 2061, over 25 percent of the Canadian population is projected to be over the age of 65. That’s at least one quarter of the entire population of Canada!

Clients should know that customers with disabilities are a growing market. In the next 50 years, the aging population and people with disabilities will account for 40 percent of the total income in Ontario. That’s $536 billion dollars of spending power. Improving accessibility in Ontario would also help generate $1.6 billion in new tourism spending.

We know that a lot of clients renovate their spaces to attract the best and brightest talent. These clients will be interested to know that more inclusive spaces will let them hire based on talents and expertise alone, rather than limiting hiring to persons who can access their space through traditional means.

We all know that design has the power to change the way people think and feel. The future of design will include integrating design decisions that enable all people to use the spaces we occupy, regardless of age or ability or minimum legislated requirements. We must also accommodate for technological improvements that will enable more people to be independent and access the most beautiful spaces in the world.

We can inspire our clients by creating spaces that are functional, beautiful and accessible. Accessible design does not need to mean institutional or displeasing.

What I’ve learned is that inclusive design is a lot like playing wheelchair rugby: you have to be creative, be prepared to (professionally) push back on people or obstacles, look at space from all sides, and not be afraid to act on ideas. The future of inclusive design is similar to the future of design itself: it will be globally focused, financially driven and creative. Designers must be leaders; they must share information on inclusive design trends occurring around the world and integrate them into all projects in new and creative ways.

Amy Pothier has always been passionate about rules and legislation, and loves to bend the rules in ways that allow for the greatest opportunities in design and inclusivity. An accessibility and building code specialist, Amy works within Gensler and with external clients to push the boundaries set by building codes and enhance designs to accommodate for all. Contact her at amy_pothier@gensler.com.

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