5 Key Ways to Expand How We Approach Accessibility

Today is International Day of Persons with Disabilities (IDPD). The world has observed this day since 1992, when the United Nations established it to promote an understanding of disability issues and mobilize support for the dignity, rights and well-being of persons with disabilities. In celebration of IDPD, Women of Influence invited Darby to share her expert advice on the topic.

By Darby Lee Young

I come to the topic of accessibility with skin in the game. I was born with mild cerebral palsy, and I run an accessibility agency. This subject is my bread-and-butter. Working to ensure a more accessible world for everyone, leaving no one behind, is both personal and professional to me. Accessibility is complex and it would take a whole book to cover the basics. However, in my daily conversations around kitchen tables and boardroom tables, there are profound points that come up all the time. They are often overlooked, and I wish everyone understood these points better. Here are five of them.

1. There’s more to accessibility than the wheelchair.

You cannot tell if someone has a disability just by how they look, or by talking to them. Some disabilities are not immediately apparent, nor do they need be — it’s just that the presence of a wheelchair is more in-your-face. And although accessibility is usually represented by a wheelchair icon, keep in mind that it’s just an icon. It cannot capture the spectrum of wheelchair types or other devices, let alone the full range of disabilities. Consider that accessibility in a space doesn’t just mean accessible for someone in a wheelchair.

You’d think this was pretty obvious, but that’s not always the case. I’ll get to that.

2. Consider the details.

It’s not just the big things that make a big impact on accessibility. It’s the little ones, too. For example, carpet. When designing a space, it’s important to consider colour contrast and direction of the carpet pile. Have you ever smashed your face into a glass window, or tripped on a step you didn’t see? Exponentiate that. There needs to be contrast between the colour of the walls and the floor. And heavily patterned carpets make it needlessly difficult for people with visual disabilities to wayfind. Picture how a dark square shape in the carpet pattern can appear like a gaping hole or a step, making it unnecessarily more difficult for someone with vision loss to assess depth. Or long hallways in hotels or airports, and the ability to reduce friction resistance pending the direction of the carpet pile.

3. Think — and build — beyond the code.

In North America in 2020, we are working with regulatory guidelines that are old and outdated. Building just to codes misses the big picture. First, we’ve come a long way since the time these regulations were articulated. They were designed with the idea of ‘accommodation’ in the built environment, not with design stewardship at the forefront.  Factoring in code standards is a good start, but because the principles of design are not integrated at the beginning of the design process, operating this way falls short in a myriad of ways and becomes costly to integrate after the fact. That affects people with disabilities, and businesses’ bottom line. I’ll get to that a little later. 

Some architects might posit that we cannot build to perfection, with the underlying sentiment that “perfection is the enemy of the good”, and that building to code is good enough. But try saying that to someone in a scooter who is in the public space you designed and cannot make a turn from the hallway to access the washroom. Checking the boxes for code doesn’t cut it after the fact, and by that time it’s too late. Designing a space with the idea of ‘accommodation’ as a separate, piecemeal treatment to a built environment is far from ideal. It’s not even good enough. It does not consider most people from the get-go.

Leaving no one behind in accessibility requires design stewardship and not just sticking to what’s been done before, what’s good for some, or what’s good for now. That thinking, and that way of building, leaves out most people with disabilities and it needs to go the way of the flip phone. 

Instead, let’s design spaces that truly work well for everyone. Let’s change not just carpets, but how we approach accessibility, diversity, and design differently how we relate to each other. It’s a fundamental change for the better in how we use and move through spaces, leaving no one behind, while promoting active and healthy communities.

4. Think Human (Centered Design Approach)

If building to code doesn’t cut it, what does? Universal Design comes close.

Human-Centered Design goes one step beyond Universal Design, by engaging people with diverse lived experiences into the design process. Human-Centered Design is premised on the understanding that for design to truly serve the people it proclaims to serve, the design needs to be informed by research and interactions with real users, in addition to the traditional processes of evaluating and auditing existing products and facilities. 

That’s because we are human, and as such, our individual understanding is subjective and fragmented. Every person is limited in what they know. Each one of us perceives issues from our own perspective. and until diverse opinions and experiences are invited into the design processes, people will never know what they do not know. That’s why we need to figure things out together. 

The lived experiences of neurodiverse people and persons with disabilities — the nuances of barriers that we experience in everyday life — cannot be understood through empathy, theory, or the adherence to regulatory checkboxes alone. In accessible design, a human-centered approach regards people with disabilities not only as end users, but as drivers of design. That means people with disabilities must be integrated into key decision-making processes within a project cycle.

5. Drive design differently.

To improve how we approach accessibility, we need a fundamental shift. Factoring a range of perspectives builds synergies and drives design that works for everyone.

But there’s more to it than that. Think about public washrooms, for example. We can do better than making a few of the washrooms accessible. It’s about making all stalls functional for everyone. Designing healthy, active communities from the ground up will make a difference to everyone’s quality of life, no matter their age, ability, or life circumstance.

We are at the threshold of a massive opportunity for leadership. Let’s expand our thinking. Canada can maximize the flexibility and robustness of our guidelines, and step up to be positioned as an international leader in accessibility.

To do that, we must be willing to go above and beyond compliance to the traditional confines of regulatory standards. We have to transcend the systems that inadvertently label and disable people. Human-Centered Design destigmatizes disability and other diversities by finding shared commonalities. Instead of reaffirming disability by designing through code compliance and accommodation, let’s envision opportunities to enrich our social fabric, considering the entire ecosystem.

Architects and policy makers, I urge you to design differently, and make accessibility integral in your work. Factor in accessibility consultants and people with lived experiences of disabilities as part of early design processes of new builds and retrofits. You’ll be better positioned to envision not only what accessible design looks like, but what equitable and integrated design for all will mean for future generations.

You won’t know what you don’t know about accessibility — until you do.

What is at stake? 

What can happen when we don’t approach accessibility in depth? 

If we don’t consider the big picture, and recognize accessibility as integral to design from start to finish, we’re not just impacting the lives of people of all ages, abilities, and community groups. We’re also closing the door on opportunity and potential for active, healthy cities. 

And beyond the opportunity cost, failure to factor in accessibility and accessibility consultants can result in millions of dollars in losses to businesses’ bottom lines. One recent example is the San Francisco 49ers football stadium class action lawsuit. It’s something we can learn from.