Access denied: planning for the disabled-access city

The World Health Organisation (WHO) has estimated that over 1 billion people are living with some form of disability worldwide – that’s about 15% of the world’s total population. And, with trends in life expectancy and the prevalence of chronic health conditions on the rise, the number of disabled people living in cities is expected to only increase in the coming years.

Despite this, many cities remain unfriendly and widely inaccessible to their disabled populations.

Those with physical disabilities can be presented with barriers built into the smallest details of manoeuvring around the city, which could be seen as trivial and unobtrusive to the average able-bodied commuter.

From impassable steep kerbs, to sandwich board-cluttered streets, to shops and restaurants without lifts- – the makeup of the typical streetscape is lined with potential obstacles and restrictions. Moreover, for people who are neurodivergent or learning disabled, a bustling urban environment can cause harm through sensory overload, anxiety and stress.

Transport is another everyday aspect of city living where disabled people can feel excluded.

In many big cities, the metro is the most convenient way to travel. A recent study found that only 31% of London Underground stations are accessible by wheelchair or mobility scooter from street to platform. Considering that a number of those still require staff assistance and ramps to board trains, the number of fully accessible stations is even less. Another study found that similarly poor access exists across the world’s major metro systems.

Disabled people commonly report that accessibility worries can be a major deterrent to engaging in public spaces that are unfamiliar.

“I must always be thinking about accessibility in the back of my head” says Grace, in a Guardian article where readers with a disability share their experiences of city access. “The barriers start before a trip begins” adds Stef, talking about autistic-unfriendly travel.

Discussing New York, Lucy describes how accessibility barriers can make her feel excluded in her own city: “I often end up feeling like a second-class citizen who doesn’t even appear in the thoughts of city planners”.

Numerous studies have found that disabled people are less likely to work or socialise in areas with poor accessibility. Moreover, cities are losing out on economic benefits from inaccessibility-– the ‘purple pound’ (signifying the spending power of disabled tourists) was estimated to be worth around £250bn in the UK pre-pandemic.

Whilst disabled access is rising in prioritisation amongst city and transport planning, there is undoubtedly still a long way to go in many cities. But there are also some good examples of cities taking action to make their spaces accessible to all.

Opening up Chester’s ancient streets

The first British city to win the coveted European Access City Award, Chester is now regarded as the UK’s most accessible city. Famous for its Roman heritage, the city pledged to make its many tourist sites fully accessible for disabled people–a sizeable challenge, considering the city’s ancient streets and medieval walls.

Chester has implemented fully accessible, wide passageways with tactile paving and added handrails above the walls and famous Chester Rows, which were previously only accessible by steps. Narrow and secluded walkways have now been connected by 17 wheelchair access points. In addition, there are disabled access focused tours, access guides, signs and online information platforms.

Transport has been revamped, as council policy requires all public buses and licensed taxis to have wheelchair access, induction loops and colour-contrast handles. The council has also committed to including a specifically designed Changing Places toilet in all new developments, adding to the numerous facilities already deployed in busy spots.

The successful implementation of an extensive access plan has not been quick, but is rather the results of Cheshire West and Chester Council’s long-term commitment to improving disability inclusion. The council has had a designated access officer since 1991 and a disability forum of 16 organisations that actively promote accessibility in new developments – such as the multi-million pound Storyhouse arts centre that has received accolades for its standard of access.

Chester’s award has seen the city become a model to other city governments from across the world, who are now visiting the city for inspiration. “We’ve had them from Dublin to Israel, they want to see how it’s done”, says Graham Garnett, Chester’s previous access officer.

Accessible route mapping in Seattle

Primarily designed for commuters in vehicles, most online routing maps can be unhelpful for people with limited mobility, lacking detail on hills, steep kerbs and access points. Aiming to rectify this, however, is the University of Washington’s Taskar Center for Accessible Technology, who have designed the AccessMap platform for the hilly city of Seattle.

AccessMap allows users to receive tailored routes dependent on customised preferences, such as only showing sloped pavements or limiting the incline of streets. As platforms such as Google Maps currently don’t take such factors into account, AccessMap will provide the user with an alternative route that is not based upon journey time or distance, but rather on safety and ease of access.

The map even uses recent data from the Seattle Department of Transportation to accommodate for real-world conditions on pedestrian pathways, such as a construction site or potentially hazardous surface conditions. In addition, the developers are aiming to turn the platform into an open street map, where users and volunteers can create up-to-date entries about the conditions they encounter.

The research team behind the project want to use their development to provide the toolkits and instructions to create similar maps in other cities. They have identified 10 urban areas in the US with the potential to replicate successful platforms, such as New York, Boston and San Francisco.

Final thoughts

Chester’s motivation in becoming fully accessible is exemplary of a city that is leading the way in disability inclusion, ensuring that it is inherent to city government planning. Likewise, the mapping project in Seattle shows how alternative tools can enhance the experiences of disabled people.

But although these examples are encouraging, they are exceptions. As long as planners fail to acknowledge the needs of people with disabilities, most of our cities will remain, in effect, no-go areas for a substantial section of society.


Further reading: more on diversity and inclusion from The Knowledge Exchange Blog:

How to make people with learning disabilities feel more included in society

Image: Accessible music technology OpenUp Music/Youth Music Network

This guest blog was written by Val Williams, Professor of Disability Studies at the University of Bristol.

People with learning disabilities can often find themselves feeling excluded when it comes to making decisions about their lives. This can range from everything, from shopping to making music or even bringing up a baby. Sometimes this exclusion can be exacerbated by the kind of support that they receive from social services – but it can also be countered by sensitive personal assistance or support.

In a recent research project, which brought together disabled and non-disabled researchers, we looked at ways to improve this – and how to include people with learning disabilities in decisions.

Part of the project found that by taking active roles in the arts, people with learning disabilities can lead the way towards meaningful inclusion. Beth Richards, an actress with learning disabilities, led part of the research about people with learning disabilities on TV. She found that actors with learning disabilities are often limited to roles which depict the “disability”, the tragic or dependent life of the character, or their effect on others around them. A successful actor with learning disabilities, for instance, told her:

“I wish TV makers would think more creatively and give people with learning disabilities any role – romantic, fantasy, comedy, shop assistants, office workers. I’d like to play James Bond, Romeo, Dobby in Harry Potter or a detective or many other roles.”

The Queen’s Birthday Honours in June 2018 include an MBE to the actress with Downs Syndrome, Sarah Gordy, for her “services to the arts and people with disabilities”. As Gordy said upon receiving the award, “diversity is an opportunity, not a problem”. She is good proof of that.

But there is a lack of accessible information. There is no shortage of talented actors and drama companies supporting people with learning disabilities, but the TV industry and its workings are still shrouded in jargon. Processes such as commissioning, auditioning and scriptwriting tend to exclude those who do not have someone to help them navigate all this.

In another part of the research, my colleague Marina Gall looked in detail at how music making can be transformed by the Open Orchestras approach in which young people with multiple and complex needs are enabled to learn musical skills, play in ensembles and become music makers. A new technological instrument – the Clarion – can be played on computers and iPads, using one’s hand, a small sensor on any part of the body, or via a person’s gaze. It can be adapted to suit most students’ physical needs.

One of the co-founders of Open Orchestras, Doug Bott, told our research team, that the approach is “personalised around the individual young person”. But at the same time, it’s trying to ensure that music is an important part of the curriculum for all young people, and has been immensely successful in changing perceptions of people with learning disabilities. This is not therapy, it’s a route to making music and to performance.

Making decisions

People with learning disabilities also face inequalities and problems in the NHS, as well as in a cash-strapped social care system. For instance, since the Mental Capacity Act 2005 came into force, support staff are legally required to support people with learning disabilities to develop their own capacity to make a decision. What we saw in our data was that people with learning disabilities can be proactive in seeking out this support – and we recorded conversations with personal assistants where people wanted to talk about decisions relating to safety, health or simply about future cooking plans. The skills that a personal assistant needs to have are to listen, look out and be responsive to the people they are supporting.

One of the key messages from our project is that health and social care practices sometimes get stuck. We used the word “institutionalised” for those times when professionals stick to a rigid and inflexible way of doing things, leaving the disabled person without the power to have a voice.

These difficult moments were also highlighted by actors with learning disabilities who helped to interpret our data. Our research benefited from a collaboration with the Misfits Theatre Company in Bristol, showing how sensitive interactions between people with learning disabilities and their personal assistants were often the trigger for good decisions, and giving those with disabilities a feeling of control over their own lives.

But quite small comments can create problems, spoiling an empowering relationship. The theatre company made a brilliant video called A Good Match about their own perspectives and experience of managing relationships with a personal assistant. One of the Misfits actors said: “It’s my house … and I don’t want my (personal assistant) telling me what I can and cannot do.”

 

After looking at a range of activities that can exclude or include people with learning disabilities, we concluded that inclusion happens when three things come together. Sometimes people with learning disabilities are included because of changes to technology, as in the Open Orchestras approach. At other times, they are included better because of new ways of doing something, or through new skills that they may learn – as actors, or as TV performers.

The ConversationBut at the heart of all this is a new belief in the equal value of people with learning disabilities. This is why we recommend that social care services need to focus less on what people cannot do, but instead promote a genuine belief in what people with learning disabilities can do – with the right support.


Val Williams is Professor of Disability Studies at the University of Bristol.

This article was originally published on The Conversation website and has been republished with permission under a Creative Commons licence. Read the original article.

Using an asset based approach to support people with learning disabilities into work

This blog is based on discussions from the Scottish Commission for Learning Disability conference, held in Perth in September 2017.

Introducing an asset-based approach

The term ” asset-based” is commonly used within community development and public health. It is used to mean an approach that identifies and emphasises the strengths and abilities of people within a community.

Instead of focusing on what people are unable to contribute, asset-based approaches instead focus on finding the value and potential of each individual, regardless of their background or personal circumstances.

At the SCLD conference in September, the audience heard examples of how asset-based approaches are being used within the field of employment support. A number of projects across Scotland are creating opportunities for people with learning disabilities to participate and contribute to their local community through meaningful work that recognises their abilities, and not the barriers created by their disabilities.

Facilitating a culture change

Research by Mencap found that although around 8 in 10 working age people with a learning disability have one that’s mild or moderate, fewer than 2 in 10 are actually in employment. Overall employment rates are also much lower than for the rest of the population or for people with physical disabilities – although recent data is lacking, in 2008 a study suggested that only about 17% of all working age people with a learning disability have a paid job.

Enabling people with a learning disability to enter employment is something that requires more than a change in policy or increased funding to improve skills and access to employment schemes (although that is also invaluable). To successfully integrate adults with learning disabilities into the workforce requires a change in employer attitudes. More generally it also requires a transformation in how we perceive learning disability within society.

One of the biggest barriers to participation in employment, are the attitudes and perceptions of other people. Increasing the understanding of how much people with learning disabilities can bring to a job and a workplace is crucial. This is where asset-based approaches can really help. They focus on identifying and making the most of someone’s abilities, and allowing individuals to offer these skills and abilities as a part of a positive contribution to their community through work.

Projects that put people at their heart

The Scottish Commission for Learning Disability (SCLD) has supported a range of projects for people in Scotland with learning disabilities. In September 2015, SCLD announced that the Scottish Government was seeking applications for development funding to support the refreshed delivery approach for The Keys to Life (Scotland’s learning disability strategy).

Of the projects awarded funding, two focussed specifically on tackling underemployment among the learning disabled population.

  • Wee enterprizers (a project that aims to increase employment opportunities for adults with learning disabilities) helped a group of aspiring entrepreneurs with learning disabilities to progress their micro business ideas. Events and workshops allowed participants to come together and share business plans, marketing ideas, and resource strategies. It also helped to identify suppliers and trading opportunities. The Yunus Centre at Glasgow Caledonian University conducted an evaluation of the project. It found that as well as helping business ideas to get off the ground, it also helped to encourage personal growth and independence in participants, improved communication skills and provided an opportunity for entrepreneurs to form a network of their own to help support each other.
  • Tayberry Enterprises provided creative art activities, volunteer opportunities and training placements in catering for people with significant health barriers to employment. The Multi-Storytelling Project offered adults with a learning disability, experiential training apprenticeships in techniques that would help them communicate effectively in a variety of different ways.

More than just work

What these projects had in common was their ability to promote the holistic benefits of training and employment. Like anyone else, opportunities to work allow people with learning disabilities to form new and engaging relationships, and to feel that they are making a positive contribution to their community. This in turn helps them to feel valued as people, not limited by their condition or circumstances.

The use of asset-based approaches adds an extra layer, as they often highlight the advantages of bringing people from different backgrounds together. For example, a project that helps to get people with learning disabilities into employment by offering training opportunities, could also double as a centre for older people who suffer from loneliness, with both communities bringing unique perspectives and contributions to the table. This enriches the experience for everyone and helps to create stronger and more resilient bonds within the community.

Final thoughts

Employment opportunities are limited for people with a learning disability. However, schemes which take into account and actively seek to make the most of a person’s assets, can go some way to reducing negative perceptions and prejudice within society.

Everyone should have the opportunity to learn, form relationships and live their dreams and aspirations, while demonstrating how they can thrive and positively contribute to their local communities.


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