Freedom through design: starting the inclusion journey

Addressing the needs of people with disabilities in the workplace should be more than a tick-box exercise. Tapping into the lived experience of people who know the challenges first-hand is a good place for designers to start

How often do you walk into a building that makes you feel good about it and, at the same time, good about yourself?

Surely it should be like that every time? That sense of excitement, that airiness that good architecture and interior can give one’s sense of wellbeing. Or do you find yourself getting frustrated by complexity of journey through the building and poor signage.

For many of us with any form of impairment or restriction, good design can be the difference between enjoying the form and function of an environment to the full, or finding ourselves on the wrong end of a service, system or physical barrier.

The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that around one billion people require some sort of assistive technology and by 2050 this figure will double to two billion. The world is getting older and, in many high-income countries, people remain healthier into later life and part of the workforce for longer.

There is therefore a great need for more inclusive products, services and environments. Many potential users have the desire and need to access them but don’t, either through barriers or their own choice because the experience isn’t a good one.

Beyond accessibility

The world has moved on from the drive for accessibility in the 1980s and 1990s. Now, 30 years later, there is an untapped opportunity to create a more inclusive journey for the ageing population, people with impairments and frankly anyone, resulting in a more inclusive society. None of us likes the feeling of being left out.

Too many companies think about accessibility in terms of meeting regulations and current legislation, they don’t often think about the ‘inclusion journey’. This is about how a product or service interacts with the user and vice versa.

However, to improve the journey to inclusion for everyone, there is a ready resource – disabled people have a great deal of insight into their own needs. Designers and architects planning work environments need to involve people with lived experience in the earlier stages of the design process. For too long design for disabilities, and those out of the mainstream, has been seen as an afterthought, something to consider at a later stage which often causes the client extra costs to retro-solve problems.

‘Early intervention in the design process is crucial to make the system work for everyone…’

It is important to engage early at the initial concept stage and throughout the design process to provide a more inclusive journey through a building. Early intervention in the process of design is crucial to making sure the system or service works for everyone, feels good and can be enjoyed. All designers and architects should be thinking about how to broaden the range of people who can access their designs. Crucially it is important to engage with those with lived experience of the challenges faced by people who do not feel included.

That’s why I‘ve set up Freedom through Design, a new consultancy which aims to advise design and architectural practices on inclusion for people with disabilities. This is not about accessibility per se, that should be a given in this day and age. It’s about ‘How does this product/service/building experience make me feel?’

David Constantine MBE  is an award-winning product designer with 40 years of lived experience of disability and 30 years of professional experience working on wheelchair design for low income countries. Motivation, the non-profit social enterprise which he co-founded, has worked closely with some of the major development and humanitarian response organisations worldwide. To learn more about David Constantine’s new consultancy, Freedom through Design, email:  [email protected]
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