Post-COVID-19 world needs more inclusive designs for persons with disabilities

Though a 100% inclusion is rarely possible, it shouldn’t deter architects or designers to strive for the ultimate through iterations of their design

By Mainak Ghosh , Shampa Sengupta , Ahina Sinha
Last Updated: Monday 14 September 2020

The novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19) has disrupted the normal as we knew it. As the humankind tries to navigate through the chaos and confusion brought upon the miscroscopic virus, the situation appears to be particularly bleak for person with disabilities.

Accounts of several people from the community have reaffirmed how flawed design remains entrenched in our social and infrastructural fabric. It has pointed to how the fear of the virus has made people from the community nearly invisible.

One of them said: “One day I needed to cross the road on my way to a bank. I was surprised that though I asked for help, no one came forward. My city was not like this before the lockdown. Then I realised everyone wants to keep physical distance.”

Another said he could not reach the taps to wash his hands because they were placed too high in his office.

“I usually took some help from my colleague. But how is it possible now? Will anyone touch me after lockdown gets over?” he said.

Another person wrote on social media: “I am hard of hearing but do not follow the Sign Language. I understand by following lip-movement of other people when they speak. Everyone [is] wearing masks these days. Few disability groups [are] selling transparent masks. But majority are not using them. I am unable to even go and buy medicines for myself as I cannot communicate with people (sic)”.

Unlike the majority of the able-bodied population, people with disabilities need to put in a great deal of effort to plan simple, daily errands. Rather than assuming that a location or environment will accommodate them, they have been compelled to believe that it probably won’t. 

These problems point to the difficulty of accessibility. It is because our approach to dealing with our surroundings is exclusive. The pandemic has presented us with a sharp clarity on the need of inclusivity in design.

The problem wouldn’t have acquired its magnanimous proportion if architects had followed the ‘Universal Design’ proposition, where products and environments are designed keeping the whole population in mind. Thus, instead of putting the burden of ensuring accessibility on the person who needs it, the design itself accommodates their needs and allows them to be self-sufficient.

But what exactly is Universal Design? It is a concept or proposition in which the design of products, environments, programmes and services is conceived and executed so that it can be used by everyone to the greatest extent possible, without the need for adaptation or specialised design. It applies to assistive devices, including advanced technologies for particular group of persons with disabilities.

Ron Mace, a renowned architect, conceived the term. He founded the Centre for Universal Design at North Carolina State University at Raleigh in 1989. In 1997, a committee of 10 under his leadership came up with the seven principles of Universal Design:

  • Equitable use: Design is useful and marketable to people with diverse abilities. It is appealing to a wide range of people
  • Flexibility in Use: Design accommodates a wide range of user preference and abilities, providing choice in methods of use and adaptability to the user’s pace
  • Simple and intuitive use: Design is user-friendly and eliminates unnecessary complexities
  • Perceptible information: Design conveys necessary information to the user regardless of his / her sensory abilities
  • Tolerance of error: The design minimises adverse consequences or hazards of unintended or accidental actions
  • Low physical effort: Efficient and comfortable design that minimises the need of sustained physical effort or repetitive actions
  • Size and space for approach and use: Provisions for approach, reach, manipulation and use regardless of user’s body size, posture or mobility

Prior to the development and acceptance of the Universal Design concept, the only usability criteria available were those stated in the codes and standards such as those outlined in the Americans with Disabilities (ADA), which provide only the minimum requirements to accommodate disabled individuals, but didn’t adequately address the principles of Universal Design.

The Rights of Persons with Disabilities Act [RPD], 2016 mandates that all services / buildings / roads should be accessible to persons with disabilities. Though a 100 per cent inclusion is rarely possible, it shouldn’t deter architects or designers to strive for the ultimate through iterations of their design.

It can be said that Universal Design improves access and outcomes for everyone in a variety of situations. Curb cuts and power-assisted doors are necessary for people with mobility impairments. They also help a parent pushing a child in a stroller, a worker transporting items in a cart or a person carrying a heavy load.

Captions are necessary for those who are hard of hearing to access information conveyed by audio. It also benefits anyone who wants to watch a documentary or video in a quiet environment without disturbing others.

Users tend to have an increased comprehension of information when captions / sub-titles are provided. A student once expressed the need for captions with online lectures. She is not hard of hearing, but feels it is easier to grasp the lessons.

For a majority of people who identify themselves as deaf or hard of hearing, online education has brought in additional barriers.

A website designed with headings and well-organised content is easier to follow and is visually appealing. This is applicable to general public. But for those who have visual impairments, web-accessibility brings in specific challenges.

Rights of Persons with Disabilities Act as well as rules under the same have made specific recommendations so that all websites follow a certain standard. For example, Section 15 of the RPD rules says “documents to be placed on websites shall be in Electronic Publication (ePUB) or Optical Character Reader (OCR) based pdf format”.

A majority of our interactions have gone online, and yet several people with visual impairments have been complaining about service providers such as banks, financial companies, or even applications that help in home-delivery of grocery or food items.

It took some time for the world to coin the term ‘the new normal’ in the wake of COVID-19. Instead of ‘normal’, why can’t we opt for a ‘universal’ re-design of the post COVID-19 world?

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