Building plans; Conversing with ASL; Woman using wheelchair nears moving sidewalk; Children using computer at Community Centre; Person reading Braille

GAATES Editorial and Articles from the Design Institute of India June Newsletter

The Global Alliance on Accessible Technologies and Environments (GAATES) recently had the opportunity to provide a guest editorial and articles for the Design Institute of India monthly newsletter. Below is the Guest Editorial, and each month, one of the articles referenced in the Editorial will be the GAATES Feature Article.

The articles for this edition were provided by a number of persons serving on the GAATES board, and by some GAATES members whom are persons living with a disability. I would like to thank each of them for sharing their knowledge and experiences in relation to Universal Design, accessibility and making the world a more accessible place for everyone.

While 164 countries have ratified the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UN CRPD), which focuses on ensuring the human rights of persons and clearly defining accessibility and Universal Design, there remain many countries around the world where people with disabilities continue to have to fight for their human rights, and where accessibility of the built and virtual environments is not considered at the conceptual or implementation stage.

In her article: Wrong Questions, Wrong Answers: The Statistical Barrier to Accessibility, Ann highlights the use of attention grabbing statistics on disability – ‘facts’ – that governments and organizations around the world are quick to use, but often fail to question the true reliability of. Statistics are only as good as the method of collection, whether the appropriate questions are being asked, and whether the questions are being asked of the whole population. Furthermore, it is also important to recognize that cultural nuances and perceptions of disability will also influence responses to given questions, highlighting the need to ‘ask the right question, in the right way’. In many cultures, having a disability is seen to bring shame to the family, and many would rather not admit that their family unit includes a person with any type of disability. As such, new methodologies of statistical collection are moving away from asking about ‘disability, and asking about ‘functional activity limitations’, which captures people who would not consider themselves as disabled, but who will admit to having functional limitations to a number of activities of daily living.

Ann concludes that we still see national censuses indicating absurdly low levels of disability because the wrong questions have been asked, and as a result we will continue to see neglect at the political level of issues that are seen as insignificant. All the more reason she argues, to ensure design and implementation of built and virtual environments is based on the principles of Universal Design, ensuring barrier free environments for everyone.

Working with Ann as Chair of our Transportation Committee, GAATES undertook a statistical exercise of its own – A Global Snapshot of Accessible Transportation. The GAATES Transportation Committee carried out an on-line survey of GAATES members around the world to determine what the biggest mobility problems are that people with disabilities face. It will come as no surprise if you have experience in the disability/accessibility field, that the answer is a combination of factors, the top three being: inaccessible transportation vehicles, inaccessible public realm and rights of way (i.e. sidewalks, curbs, paved roads, etc.) and the attitude of transportation service providers and their staff. When asked what is the priority for remedying the situation, there was no clear priority but there was a common theme – systemic societal change is required: in training of service providers; in training of designers and developers of the built environment and public realm, and in creating awareness about Universal Design and accessibility so that governments and the public see that accessibility considerations benefit everyone, and are not only for the persons with disabilities subset of the population.

However, even if we had correct statistics, and people understood the benefits of Universal Design, Thea Kurdi, a long time GAATES member and accessibility of the built environment specialists, poses the question What is holding back progress in creating accessible buildings? In her article, she examines the long held practice of engaging accessibility consultants once the building design is already well underway, and questions why accessibility specialists aren’t consulted at the programming and conceptual stage.

Even once we are able design and develop accessible built and public environments, there continue to be challenges related to Keeping Accessible Environments Accessible, as highlighted in an article by GAATES’ Matthew Fleet. He rightly points out that this is not just an issue for architects and designers, but that we all have a role to play, especially building managers and operators. Too often environments are ‘sabotaged’ and barriers created in an environment that was previously accessible. Keeping environments accessible often doesn’t cost anything additional – but failing to do so can mean the unintended exclusion of persons with disabilities and older persons.

Those of us who actively work in the field of disability, accessibility and Universal Design recognize the diverse range of human functioning. However, many people when they hear ‘disability’ automatically think ‘wheelchair user’. GAATES board member Joseph Kwan addresses accessibility for persons with vision disabilities in his article on Finding Your Way with Wayfinding: Navigation Tools for People with Vision Disabilities. This article highlights the use of a multitude of design features and personal assistive devices, from: tactile wayfinding surface indicators, tactile maps of entire facilities, Braille signage, and other assistive wayfinding technologies. Remarkably, people think of these wayfinding tools as being for the exclusive use of persons with vision disabilities, whereas the reality is – if you ever have the opportunity to follow a tactile wayfinding guide path, do so, it will never lead you astray – and a tactile map of a facility, makes it easier for everyone to find their way.

Of course, accessibility isn’t just about things we can touch and feel – it is also about the ability to access and understand information. GAATES’ board member and Country Representative for Bangladesh, Vashkar Bhattacharjee has long been working towards ensuring accessible information for all, working on the conversion of educational materials into Braille and DAISY format. His article on Accessible Books: A Vision Moving Forward, addresses the issues and solutions for the way forward in regards to access to information, in his home country of Bangladesh.

From the breadth of articles presented, it is clear that much work has been done, and much more continues to be needed; on educating the governments, organizations, and the masses on the rights and protections contained in the Articles of the UN CPRD; on the need for capacity building on Universal Design and accessibility by architects, engineers, designers and building managers, and on how the implementation of accessibility of the built and virtual environments can benefit us all, not just persons with a range of disabilities.

To read all of the GAATES articles, please go to our Feature Articles page.

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