Designing for Equality – Moving Beyond Compliance

Words by Kate Donaldson
Photography by Derek Swalwell

In 1992, The Disability Discrimination Act (DDA) made it unlawful to treat those with a disability in a different way to non-disabled people when providing goods, services, facilities and access to premises. Since then, a series of national and local standards have begun to codify provisions for minimum levels of accessibility compliance across all areas of building work and design. However, the ‘tick-box’ mentality to reach compliance alone is no longer enough. Inclusivity is increasingly recognised as effecting more than just those with physical disabilities, but also the many who have sensory, psychiatric, learning and neurological disabilities and make up more than 4.4 million Australians. Architects and designers are slowly integrating higher universal thinking into their work, acknowledging that comfort, awareness, understanding and personalisation must become invariable principles to advance our built environment now and for the future.

Dr Jane Bringolf, Chair for the Centre of Universal Design Australia, believes that one of the obstacles to meaningful progress within inclusive design is the complexity of navigating the many stakeholders involved. “The problem is,” Jane says, “that while thoughtful architects and designers might want to do the right thing, it takes a whole system to agree.” This can lead to a mindset where designers will conceptualise and develop their work without inclusivity in mind and only look at requirements towards the end to ‘add on’. In turn, often only regulated accessibility elements, such as ramps or handrails, are integrated and sometimes even placed in thoughtless positions to simply tick the box. Not only does this lead to a subpar result for essential accessibility parameters but it more widely signals a missed opportunity to place user experience at the heart of a project. Jane explains that while the industry is not yet entirely interested in quality inclusion, only in meeting minimum standards, there are still vocal individuals and groups who are important early champions for change.

A recent commitment by the Victorian Government to a universal design policy that will apply to state-funded infrastructure and projects is also a further indicator to Ratio Consultants that those in power are starting to acknowledge the influence of inclusive design.

Part of pushing beyond compliance to achieve truly equalised spaces must begin with involving many voices from the start, from user groups to expert consultants. “Access and inclusion can’t be tacked on – it must be embedded,” Jane explains. “Co-design, co-production, co-creation is the way to do it – involve the users right from the start. Designers need to build on their skill set to work collaboratively with user groups and this is the trend now.” These small shifts in both outlook and approach to design could mark the beginning of a momentum to create more thoughtful, caring design for all.

Similarly, Senior Associate at Ratio Consultants Mathew Furness finds that “there is a growing recognition of the role of universal design principles and their importance in ensuring that urban environments are accessible and usable for all.” Mathew particularly observes that there is an evolving focus on not just considering those with perceivable disabilities, but also those with less visible conditions such as auditory, intellectual and neurocognitive differences. This expanding scope of recognition goes further than traditional ableism to understand the implications of design for broader human performance, wellness, social participation and even cultural appropriateness.

Moving beyond compliance for DDA design involves a complex and nuanced challenge for practitioners to ensure that design is suitable for everyone. Not all measures that assist one group may be helpful for another but, ultimately, architects and designers must understand that their every decision makes us do or feel something. A collaborative, industry-wide perspectival shift is needed to ensure that design for the future is inclusive, healthy and safe for all.

Nonetheless, Mathew also believes that this increasing awareness does not always translate to embedded principles in design outcomes due to the influence of bottom-line developers, who may see accessibility beyond compliance as an unnecessary additional cost. “While the design community is increasingly aware of the issue, there is more to be done to encourage and support the development industry to do better and to address perceptions around the additional cost of adopting a universal design approach,” Mathew says.

The team at Ratio Consultants are just one multi-disciplinary group within the Australian built environment industry working to advocate for the creation of accessible and inclusive spaces within their work. The strategies that Ratio employs and encourages go further than just universal fundamentals; they also seek to find inclusiveness for any minority group who could feel disconnected in a space. “A focus on structural physical accessibility, wayfinding and visual connectivity can provide the framework by which to continue contributing with the integration of sensory and therapeutic design for true universal engagement,” says Mathew. Further use of specific navigation and visual cues include sensory elements such as the use of water, natural elements, plant species, sound and textured materials; the direction of pathways; the siting of furniture; and the creation of areas for interaction. Consideration of such things contributes towards a more comprehensive level of inclusivity.