A shift in mindset is the first requirement of Universal Design. From an emphasis on capital that prioritises social value over fiscal, Universal Design challenges human nature at its core. So how is this shift brought about?
Our most fundamental needs are the Sense of Place and our security with regards to ‘I am’ and ‘I need.’ There is a third however, that of self preservation – and this one isn’t always under our control. I’ve previously mentioned the motorcyclist who’d had an accident and the subsequent impact on his life, as an example of the shift from capability to reliance. Such a life-defining moment is usually behind us before the realisation of its impact. Thus shock, confusion, the dawning realisation of our new reality, the implications on every aspect of life, the thought of dignity replaced by intimate bodily care and its corresponding humiliation, nothing remains the same. Or does it? Are we our defined by our badly compromised body, or our reduced-capability mind? Has our core been fundamentally changed, our essential self diminished? Have we been shunted from participant to liability, from self-sufficient to victim? Managing this shift then is the a priori of Universal Design.
Yet just managing it leaves it wanting – for that implies making the best of the present, through the cobbling of ad hoc principles via the squeaky wheel process to a flawed past. And given that an understanding for the need for UD goes back as far as 1949, ignorance is no longer a valid excuse as the demographic is – tragically – too high and too demonstrable. Who doesn’t know someone categorised as ‘disabled’? And who hasn’t been guilty of patronising them at some point or another – bringing us back to the concept of prejudice and discrimination. Thus UD must become the given not the afterthought, the heart rather than the appendix, first principles as opposed to ‘the icing on the cake.’
In this light, UD speaks to seamlessness, to a built environment which assumes fully integrated and transparent mobility and accessibility. One caution at this point is to avoid the assumption that UD is some kind of a ‘lowest common denominator,’ that in designing and planning for ‘the disabled’ we must ‘dumb it down’ to the point of blandness and sterility, on the premise that if ‘they can use it, then anybody can.’ That form of function simply degrades us all through a simplistic yet arrogant assertion that to cater for all is to reduce us all. The flip side of a damaged coin, is still a damaged coin.
Participation then, isn’t about adding the ramp and lowering the height of the light switches, rather it’s about design that allows for both the individual and the collective Sense of Place, regardless of location or accommodation, one that offers belonging and embracing right from the outset for all comers. This ability to both participate and elevate, is the spirit of UD. A stunning European cathedral with its vaulted ceilings and stained glass windows is no less inspiring simply because the visitor is wheelchair bound. But the visitor is reduced if the ‘disabled’ door is ’round the back and through the service entrance’, rather than through the magnificent wooden doors that lead directly into the heart of a building designed to inspire the mind and feed the soul.
In the context of UD, perception is the expression of a space regardless of our place in it, measured by both our reaction and response to it. The stained glass windows mentioned above can’t be appreciated – reacted to – by one who is blind, yet the Sense of Place – its ‘vibe’ can be felt in other ways. These can be measured by the visitors overall experience of the space in terms of anxiety levels – did it invite the visitor to stay awhile through inspiration and authenticity? Was the visitor elevated and endorsed as fully human despite the difficulties of their physical or mental wellbeing? Ultimately the question will always be – did I leave in a better emotional place than when I arrived? Now, while such a question is inherently existential, its validity lies in terms of the visitors needs and their fulfilment – was I respected and endorsed as human, or was I shunted through because I was ‘holding up the works’ because others had to wait on me?
This leads directly to that of self and our raison d’être – our reason for being. Is this diminished just because an accident or genetic abnormality dictates? Evie Callander didn’t live to be three, yet her legacy has transcended that of most of us. Her short life entranced those who knew her, adding an intangible yet distinct depth of life seldom found elsewhere. Her physical ‘disabilities’ were challenging, however her humanity and the strength of her spirit were formidable. To meet Evie was to be elevated, to be honoured, to be utterly accepted at a level few can imagine. And it is this authenticity that inspires the core of UD – does this place, this built environment – allow for Evie? Does it treat her in accordance with Callander’s humanity, identity and dignity?
How we receive a place will always be its ultimate test. Granted that is a very subjective one, open to more variables than I care to list, but it is the human test, the one that determines whether or not we choose to return. This is the ‘I am’ and ‘I need’ of our self, regardless of our self-sufficiency, returning us to the pragmatism of UD – the ramps and the light switches – that service our Sense of Place.
Seamlessness as a facet of UD can be seen in scale – those European Cathedrals transcend everyone regardless of need or vulnerability – yet they are the product of those who stand in awe, ultimately demonstrating the enormity of humanities endeavours. Thus if scale leads to awe and awe to demonstration, then UD is also demonstrated – not in terms of clever planning, as that is a given – rather in terms of universal reaction and endorsement. If I want to go back because I know I will enjoy it in terms of Callander’s humanity, identity and dignity – because it endorses my humanity without drawing attention to my incompleteness – then as an example of UD it must be deemed a success.
Universal Design – also referred to as Barrier-Free and Design for All (DfA) – is the acknowledgment of a common humanity in a world that is divided, of universal dignity, cultural validity, and freedom from discrimination through barrier. But while it removes that which excludes, it also provides for inclusion – the seamlessness we have been referring to throughout. Equipped to enjoy, participate, demonstrate and inspire, reduced physical or mental functioning becomes a genuine asset from which humanity can rise and acknowledge its debt to Evie’s everywhere, whose genuine humanity transcended her compromised body. Universal Design provided the forum that introduced us to Evie.