Earlier this week, I posted on social media about a new “Quiet Zone” at the Royal Adelaide Show that has been made available for the first time. When I heard the clip on the news (in amongst making dinner and yapping poodles) I thought it was great news, literally. I still think it is great news, but it made me wonder - when the broader community hear of inclusion progress in public spaces, do they think it is something for people who are different to them or something that always should have been there?
The answer to that question is critical to the acceptance of people with disabilities into the mainstream community and the gradual end to “othering”.
Let me explain.
Inclusion for people with disabilities is not a new concept, but it is a relatively underdeveloped one. Here in South Australia, we only just legislated for the inclusion of people with disabilities in 2018 (!!). Many other states and territories are yet to have any such laws. When I talk about inclusion in public places, services and goods, I really mean universal design. The Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities defines ‘universal design’ as:
the design of products, environments, programmes and services to be usable by all people, to the greatest extent possible, without the need for adaptation or specialized design. “Universal design” shall not exclude assistive devices for particular groups of persons with disabilities where this is needed.
In practical terms, spaces, places, products and services should be designed so that everyone can enjoy them. Rather than having specific places or things for people with disabilities, those places and things are accessible to all. Approaching inclusion in this way stops it from being an “initiative” or a “one-time thing”. It’s not the exception, it is the rule. Universal design features just become a part of our everyday life. A boring example is the humble ramp. Ramps have been used as a bit of an “add on” feature to a lot of buildings since people with physical disabilities have been enforcing their right to community participation and access to public places. But when buildings are built now, ramps or flat surfaces (i.e. no steps) are a standard feature. Not having steps doesn’t negatively impact anyone else using the building, but does grant access to people using mobility aids. Ta da, universal design at work!
One of my favourite examples of how universal design and inclusion can be amazing for people with and without disabilities is playgrounds (for the trendy readers, also known as “playspaces”). I have a million memories as a child with a physical disability of sitting on the edge of the bark chipped swing set at the local playground, watching my sister and friends play. While I was especially amused when I had a front-row seat to my sister stacking it off the monkey bars, it never occurred to me that there could be a playground that I could play on too. Fast forward 25 years and it is totally a thing!
The Touched by Olivia Foundation is leading the way by advocating for and building inclusive playspaces. In Adelaide, we have one in our Southern suburbs. Inclusive features in playspaces include swings that can cater for all disabilities, fencing around the playground and an equipment layout that doesn’t separate children with a disability. Super interestingly, in a leading report on inclusive playspaces, State of Play 2019 72% of people said that inclusive toilet facilities, including nappy changing and lifting assistance for older children, would be a feature offering the biggest improvement to their playground experience. We forget that even the basics can be missed for people with disabilities and their families! Typical of most modern playgrounds, inclusive playspaces look great with nature play spaces and funky equipment. Children with and without disabilities play together now without a noticeable moment of inclusion. It is just the way it is.
The difference between the inclusive playgrounds, buildings with ramps and any other feature which is universally designed and something that is not, is that it is seamless! People with disabilities do their thing and people without disabilities do theirs, but they do them side-by-side. We build environments so that everyone can participate.
I know everyone (or at least most people) do not need to be persuaded that inclusion is a good thing. I rarely meet a person who hates ramps or thinks that neuro-diverse children being able to go to the Royal Show is bad. But what we don’t talk about enough is why it is important? Why does it matter if people with disabilities are at the Show, in our cafes, at schools or just playing in the playground? An obvious answer is the basic recognition of the right for people with disabilities to be equal in all aspects of life. But when I start to quote the law at people, they glaze over pretty quickly. The concept of equality is well-loved but people can forget how to make it “work” in real life. So let me describe it another way;
if you embrace universal design as part of your everyday life; you will be part of creating a future where people with disabilities are not “others”.
Whether you are an urban planner, a school teacher, a first-time homeowner or cafe worker you can do something to make your space more accessible for everyone. You don’t need an initiative, a crowd-funded campaign or an expert opinion, you just need to know it’s an option and go for it! Building and creating spaces, places and services that welcome everyone is the way of the future. We have started this already and I am excited to see how standard inclusion becomes in my lifetime.
If I think how far inclusive practices in the mainstream community have come in my lifetime, imagine where we will be in 30 years time! The advent of inclusive playgrounds means that my niece who is still a baby will grow up playing with kids that have different abilities and that will be super standard! It is an exciting future ahead! But we won’t get there by decades of initiatives and campaigns, we will get there by responsible adults that use clever design and ordinary children who know no different than people with disabilities are a valued, ordinary part of the community.
To learn more on universal design and the technical aspects of it, head over here: http://universaldesignaustralia.net.au/
To read about inclusive playspaces visit here: http://touchedbyolivia.com.au/