Create one size that fits all

Public transport may not take the physical or mental diversity of the population into account, but designers should certainly know better, says Hugh Pearman

As I bang my head yet again on those stupidly positioned longitudinal grab-rails on the Circle Line Tube trains, I realise I might claim to be disabled. By virtue of being tall. Anyone over 6ft tall isn’t really designed for the London Underground, which must have been created by dwarfs. If only they’d given the tunnels a foot more clearance all round – what splendid comfort we’d travel in.

Tallness is, of course, a prime disability when travelling Economy on planes. Everyone always talks about how seats are having to get wider to cope with fatties. Hey – what about us beanpoles? Since I’m one of those who’d rather suffer agonies than blag an upgrade (what a weird, souk-like bargaining system that is), well, I suffer those agonies. Which is why my two favourite airlines are Air Canada and American. A couple of inches of extra knee room is all it takes. And I just wish the plane-fitters would adopt Seymour Powell’s vision from a few years back of a space-saving, slender-yet-ergonomic, airline seat.

I have other mild disabilities. A recently developed need to fumble for reading specs when confronted with the small print of Time Out or instruction books. A tendency to be deaf in one ear in the mornings. Must buy ear drops. Ah, but I can’t. Apparently, they are made of peanut oil, and I have a nut allergy. I recall Lord Snowdon, as provost of the Royal College of Art, pointing out that most of us are disabled in some small way. He was probably referring to his childhood polio and the fact he sometimes walks with a stick, but as he spoke he waved his glasses.

But no, I can’t pretend. Despite the usual niggling infirmities of middle-age, I am able-bodied and fully mobile. I run blithely up stairs, I dodge nimbly between cars, I carry stuff with ease, I do not suffer from claustrophobia, I can even thread a needle (with the help of specs). Like everyone in this fortunate state, I don’t think about how easy it is for me to get around and do things until something happens like a twisted ankle or a pole-axing fever. Then, suddenly, the whole world changes. But things quickly heal, and it changes back again. Others don’t have that hope.

It would be easy to say that I never felt so disabled as when, a few years back, I was constantly pushing baby buggies around. It’s true up to a point – when fettered with a buggy, you immediately notice those daunting flights of steps and too-narrow revolving doors and so forth. It wasn’t until I had babies to manoeuvre that I started to wonder why, on the Tube, the escalators hardly ever get as far as platform level (bravo, Sloane Square, a rare exception). There’s nearly always that final hurdle, those killer steps. And that’s assuming you’re OK on escalators. Plenty of people aren’t.

But this too is not a real test. Being able-bodied, I could fold up buggies, hoist children on to my shoulder, or just carry the whole package up steps. If you’re on your own in a wheelchair, or hobbling on crutches, no such luck. But this matter goes far beyond mobility outside the home. Beyond the visibly obvious physical disabilities, there is the matter of gradually developing a disabling disease. A friend of mine has Parkinson’s. Drinking a cup of tea – let alone making it – has become a risky activity. And, of course, degenerative old age brings related problems. Ever tried explaining a TV remote control to an old lady with Alzheimer’s?

All this brings me to the Routemaster bus. Apparently, they are marvellous to drive. Responsive, beautifully engineered, all that. And now they are finally being phased out, to lamentations all round. This despite the fact that they are lethal machines, even for the able-bodied. People fall off the back of them, or tumble down those narrow stairs. In winter they are freezing cold. The platform is so high it’s a struggle for half the population to get on and off. The ceilings on both decks are almost comically low. The one thing in the Routemaster’s favour, apart from its durability, is the fact that it has a conductor, who can to some extent help passengers. Er, that’s it. Nobody regrets the passing of those slam-door trains from the 1950s. Well, that’s the era of the Routemaster.

Put it this way. It’s not a question of us and them, able and disabled. It’s the fact that the population as a whole has a graduated range of physical and mental capabilities. From those who can do anything with ease, to those who can do nothing without great trouble. So: all designers have to do is think about as broad a range of those abilities as they can. Because if your batty infirm old great-aunt can use it, then so can you. But not necessarily vice-versa.

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