Janice Lovelock Senior Engineer, Sydney
Creating infrastructure that enables marginalised groups to participate and fully contribute benefits everyone. Janice Anne Lovelock, a senior engineer at AECOM, discusses the importance of universal access and inclusion – through her own lens as a wheelchair user.
So much depends on how we design our transport systems. Effective and safe transport is an enabler for our social wellbeing, economic vitality, livability, sense of community and connectedness. However, everybody’s transport experience is unique to their own circumstances, and the challenge we face as designers, planners and engineers is to create a positive experience for all.
Diversity of opinion and diversity of perspectives in the design process leads to better, more considered solutions and reduces the tendency for designers to default to the requirements of a generic, able bodied, male user (which much of the public environment has historically been built to cater for).
Me enjoying my local curb-cut
The modular man developed in the 1940’s by the French architect Le Corbusier, would serve to dictate a proportional system for the world around us, including everything from the height of a door handle to the scale of a staircase, all governed by the need to make everything as convenient as possible for this 6ft-tall ideal man. Le Corbusier believed that measurements based on the human body, would allow architects to construct buildings and spaces better suited to human use. But which humans are we considering in the design process?
I fitted the standard mould at least a little better prior to my accident in 2019, as a 5-foot 9-inch able bodied woman - when I could stand up and walk. After sustaining a permanent spinal cord injury, I now ambulate using a wheelchair. I can only just see over a standard height balustrade; I can’t sit under tables which have table legs crossing underneath and I can’t turn around in a corridor less than 1.5m wide. I see and access the world differently from how I did previously, but my disability is twofold. It comprises both my physical impairment and the deficiency of the environment around me which does not cater fully for my mobility. And when I experience the latter, my disability is exacerbated. Especially when my wheelchair starts to roll along a train platform! - (slanted of course to allow for surface water drainage).
The feeling of having your disability exacerbated by the surrounding environment was profoundly shared by protesters in the 1970s and 1980s in America. They took to the streets to physically break curbs with hammers, as a literal demonstration of breaking barriers that deny wheelchairs access physically and symbolically to integrating into the community. Today curb-cuts are commonplace, and everybody has benefited—not only people in wheelchairs. Parents pushing strollers, workers pushing trolleys, travelers wheeling luggage, cyclists and skateboarders, pedestrians even go out of their way to use curb cuts. They also dictate pedestrian behavior inadvertently saving lives by guiding people to cross at safe locations.
According to the United Nations Convention on the rights of Persons with Disabilities, people with disabilities include “those who have long-term physical, mental, intellectual or sensory impairments, which in interaction with various barriers may hinder their full and effective participation in society on an equal basis with others”. This importantly provides the view of people with disabilities as not being disabled solely by their impairments, but rather by barriers that prevent them gaining equal access to transport (amongst other services). This identifies an important opportunity for designers; if we understand the barriers we create, we can remove them collectively – effectively removing disability from the equation altogether.
As our Australian Federal, State and Local Governments, together with the wider global community advance multi-billion-dollar investments in infrastructure, there are now a multitude of opportunities to correct long-standing social inequalities, one of these being the lack of inclusive mobility and accessibility in our cities, in our public realm and in our infrastructure. To rectify this, greater consideration needs to be made with respect to taking a vulnerable user's approach to transport planning – which includes those with disability. And the first step to this approach is understanding that lens. Collaborative Safety Audits formalise this approach, with mapping and walking / rolling workshops as part of the scope. These audits work with local councils to advise on change. Montreal is a pioneer in this space, with audits considering visibility, maintenance, accessibility, and inclusion prominent in the design process.
This aim to rectify social inequality with respect to transport infrastructure, is acknowledged in Australian Government legislation, which requires the provision of accessible services to people with disabilities in a manner which is not discriminatory. Specifically, the Disability Standards for Accessible Public Transport (DSAPT) 2002, an instrument of the Disability Discrimination Act 1992 (Commonwealth), specifies a requirement in both the modification of infrastructure and the development of new infrastructure, means of transport and services to provide access for people with disabilities. But it’s often a matter of how we interpret and implement this legislation at a grass roots level, that can make the most difference to someone’s day to day life.
In my (still ongoing) journey post injury, I have drawn a lot of inspiration from many role models advocating for rights of the physically disabled, including the late Edward Roberts. Edward was the first wheelchair user to attend the University of California, Berkley in 1962 (which had initially turned him down on the basis that his iron lung machine wouldn’t fit into the dormitory). A disabled activist, paralyzed from the neck down at age 14 after contracting polio, he decided he would not only live, but that he would live demonstrating and advocating for a more inclusive world for those with a disability.
He spurred on Berkley City’s ‘curb cuts movement’ in the early 1970s. Beyond Berkley this trend spread with groups around the world advocating for changes in the built environment to facilitate inclusivity. This wasn’t just isolated to curb cuts, but also ramps, wheelchair lifts, elevators with buttons within seated reach, accessible countertops, accessible bathrooms, and so much more.
Today curb cuts are ubiquitous and Edward Roberts’ wheelchair is housed at the Smithsonian National Museum of American History (Ed Roberts' Wheelchair | National Museum of American History (si.edu)). It’s nice to see it on display, revered like a Vitruvian Man. It serves as a symbol of the lives and perspectives of people with disabilities, as well as other marginalised groups that need to be brought into the foreground when approaching design of the built environment, of places, precincts, and transport infrastructure.
Today, through processes like Universal Design, we continue to see a shift in society's mindset toward facilitating the participation of those who don’t fit the mould – making for an environment which is not just better for me, but better for all (and yes this includes our favorite 6-foot-tall Hollywood actors!).
Smashing barriers to access: Disability activism and curb cuts | National Museum of American History (si.edu)
Ed Roberts (activist) - Wikipedia Curb Cuts - 99% Invisible (99percentinvisible.org) Ed Roberts's Wheelchair | National Museum of American History (si.edu) Gallery of What Is the Fibonacci Sequence and How Does It Relate to Architecture? - 5 (archdaily.com) Ed Roberts's Wheelchair | National Museum of American History (si.edu)