Demos: designers must consider disabled

Poor design, ineffective communication and a dearth of collaboration with the disabled population are all symptoms of entrenched ‘disablism’ in the UK, according to a report from independent think-tank Demos.

Produced in association with disability charity Scope and the rights campaign group Disability Awareness in Action, the report calls on the design industry to nurture a more holistic approach to producing inclusive and accessible design. However, while design may benefit from a broader dialogue with end users, the cost imperatives of designers’ clients must also come to bear on the design process.

Demos says that design that is conceived to be accessible to users with restricted ability – whatever the type – will additionally benefit a much wider group of people. Wheelchair access on buses, for example, is also an aid to parents with prams, it points out.

‘The big message is that, very often, inclusive design is good for everybody,’ says Tony Manwaring, chief executive of Scope. ‘We are trying to change the perspective [of industry] so that people have a vision of a more holistic approach.’

Such an attitude would bring disabled people into all stages of the design process, including, where possible, using disabled designers themselves.

Demos says the industry needs to move beyond piecemeal solutions (access at work is no good if you can’t get out of bed) and focus groups (predominantly attended by ‘young, strong people with good co-ordination and excellent eyesight’), to move toward universal accessibility in design.

While the principles and benefits of inclusive design are well-documented, Demos nonetheless acknowledges that barriers need to be overcome to produce change as quickly as possible. According to Sophia Parker, a senior researcher at Demos and co-author of the report, ‘The rules of engagement between disabled groups and industry currently don’t really exist.’

The dynamic between legislation, designers and their clients is one area where ideals and commercial reality may sometimes jostle. Priestman Goode director Paul Priestman notes that the onus is very much on designers to develop varied, accessible and cost effective designs. ‘We have to put the thoughts in the client’s mind. If we can convince them that it is a lucrative market, then maybe they’ll take it on. However, the majority of clients look at [design solutions] from a cost point of view,’ he says.

This financial bottom line will inevitably influence the production processes, but at Scope, Manwaring is trying to ‘create a dialogue to re-engineer what the bottom line means’.

Universal design makes economic sense for companies, says Manwaring. BSkyB’s recent investment in remodelling their core technology to meet disabled needs is cited by Manwaring as an example of corporate recognition of this process.

‘There is a lot of laziness in business thinking that says it won’t be cost-effective [to create accessible designs]. But as the number of old and disabled people rises, companies can increase their market share [using universal design principles],’ says Manwaring.

Indeed, the economic imperative is growing as the population ages. ‘It becomes a marketing issue for manufacturers. As we’re all getting older, their target demographic is also ageing and so it makes sense to incorporate these people’s needs into product design,’ says Anna Humpherson, design strategist at the Design Council. ‘Design for the average person is a compromise for everyone.’

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