I was saddened to read of the passing of Professor Mike Oliver earlier this month, a man who helped found and promote the ‘Social Model’ of disability within the UK and beyond. The model pulled together a growing sphere of work on disability and society and helped frame a discourse that developed into a study area of its own. It certainly influenced me, through my degree in geography, where it formed the basis of my dissertation and led me into my first job (pre-planning consultant days) as an access consultant.
The Social Model’s core message is a simple one. It asks us to focus less on individual impairment and more on the barriers presented by society. As Tom Shakespeare (a noted social scientist who offered a review of the model in 2013
“Impairment is distinguished from disability. The former is individual and private, the latter is structural and public. While doctors and professions allied to medicine seek to remedy impairment, the real priority is to accept impairment and to remove disability.” (Shakespeare, 2013, 216)
In this sense, the barriers are many and varied – they can be social, economic, educational or attitudinal among many other forms. However, in the built environment, it is the barriers to physical access that are the most prevalent yet also are some of the easiest to eradicate, whether it’s in new developments, refurbishments or wider regeneration projects.
To remove barriers from the built environment, inclusive design should be at the forefront of development schemes and equality of access a principle mantra. In some cases the design solutions should be clear and straight forward to apply, such as step free access at a threshold or the correct tactile paving at a crossing (I say ‘should be’ as I’ve seen some shocking examples/attempts at both!). But it can be and indeed is far more nuanced than that.
For example, colour contrast and delineation can be vital for many visually impaired people to help them navigate spaces safely and independently and the acoustics of a building can have a dramatic effect on how someone with a hearing impairment uses and interacts with a space. It is also important to consider how the design treats its users equally, avoiding, where possible, separate and different access points or creating segregation in how people move within and use a building. In all instances, how the building environment is designed and built can and will be key to how an individual feels able to use it and ultimately whether they will use it.
The building regulations (Part M) set a standard, which seeks to improve the accessibility of new and refurbished buildings – as far as standards go it seems to me to be fairly effective. However, as with most building regulations, it should be viewed as the absolute minimum and development should seek to go above and beyond – this is an in-principle message that supports the intent of the Equalities Act (2010) (and the Disability Discrimination Act before it). Take sustainability and energy as an example, the building regulations set targets – but in a planning policy context the local area seeks to improve on building regulation requirements. Perhaps the same could be achieved in matters of inclusive design?
There is no one size fits all; impairment can be physical, auditory, cognitive, psychological among many other forms and what reduces a barrier for one individual may increase it for another. In this sense there is no perfect solution. However, there is a duty on practitioners in the built environment to ensure they keep the principles of inclusive design at the heart of design and decision making. Whether it be architects, planners or engineers, employing a best practice approach to eliminating barriers in the built environment that can reduce a person’s opportunities to access and enjoy space should be a shared and common goal. The outcome will be better designed spaces and places for everyone.
 Shakespeare, T – writing within Davis, LJ (2013), ‘The Disability Studies Reader’, Routledge, 214-221.