“When speaking of disabilities, the blind and their needs are most often used as an example. It is deceivingly simplistic since accessibility is something most of the population can benefit from.” ― Marcus Österberg
The thought of being barrier-free always comes with for whom, and what kind of barriers. We humans are bounded by physical, social, cultural, communicational, psychological, environmental, financial, and political barriers. When we ponder further, each of the barriers robs the individuals of either of the three: Accessibility, Opportunity, and Dignity in various spheres of their life.
“The one argument for accessibility that doesn’t get made nearly often enough is how extraordinarily better it makes some people’s lives. How many opportunities do we have to dramatically improve people’s lives just by doing our job a little better?” ― Steve Krug
Human experiences are often linked with physiological aspects of perception and understanding. While accessibility is the right of every individual, it is a professional obligation as well as a societal commitment of design professionals to strive for barrier-free environments. When one thinks of social injustices and the exclusion of minorities, it is most probable that the topic of architecture won’t come to mind. While it may not be commonly associated with the subject, the architectural field has had indirect influence on social movements and livelihood throughout the past. One can understand the psychology of architecture and use it to break barriers for the community.
A Background To The Barrier-Free Concept
A barrier-free environment is a space that entitles free and safe movement, function, and access for all, regardless of age, sex, or condition. A space or a set of services that can be accessed by all, without obstacles, with dignity, and with as much independence as possible is the driving strategy. The environment means buildings, roads, parks, and other places, services, modes of transportation, products of daily use, etc. It aims to empower the vulnerable sections of our society to enable them to effectively participate in mainstream development and decision-making processes.
While Human rights are inherent to all human beings, whatever our nationality, sex, place of residence, national or ethnic origin, color, religion, language, or any other status we are equally entitled to our human rights without discrimination. These rights are all interdependent, interrelated, and indivisible.
Over the years, our society has slowly eliminated segregation into divisions and has started amalgamating itself to become more global and encompassing. The differences and discriminations due to caste, creed, color, sex, profession, etc. are slowly disappearing and society is moving toward becoming a more inclusive one – where all are perceived and included as equals. The concept of barrier-free design is developing around the world and this idea has expanded toward the outlook of inclusive design.
Barrier-Free Design as a Patron
Free environments are often hurdled with barriers that cause discomfort and marginalization to the users. While we have varied personalities and identities, It is the intersection that confers advantages or disadvantages which in turn enhances the abilities, opportunities, and dignity of individuals and groups. These three channels are also interrelated and overlapping.
As designers, we need to ensure the well-being of specialized groups so that they are not on the verge to be marginalized or differentiated. We can ensure places and experiences are open to all by ensuring to develop strategies that promote inclusivity. This approach benefits everyone regardless of ethnic background, age, disability, or social constraints. Designing for the widest bigger sample size not only reduces the cost involved for user-friendly design accommodation but it benefits everyone.
Disability: A Social Construct
“The only disability is when people cannot see human potential.”― Debra Ruh
Disability is a part of being human and over 1 billion people – about 15% of the global population – currently experience disability, states WHO. The social model sees “disability” is the result of interaction between people with disability and an environment filled with physical, attitudinal, communication, and social barriers.
A person’s environment has an enormous impact on the experience and extent of disability. Effective participation for users is usually hampered due to barriers that make the environment/spaces inaccessible. To facilitate persons who have been robbed away from experiences and opportunities, we can work towards advancement in social participation that can break these barriers. Broadly categorized groups are –
1. Visually impaired people: Individuals who are partially or completely lost sight.
2. Hearing-impaired people: Individuals who have any degree of hearing loss.
3. Locomotor-impaired people: Individuals with disability of bones, muscles, or joints leading to substantial difficulty in the movement of limbs.
4. Speech-impaired people: Individuals with difficulty producing sounds that create words or have verbal communication
5. Intellectually disabled and ill people: Individuals with limited ability to learn at expected levels and function in daily life
6. Specific people: Individuals in a particular stage of life or situation such as pregnant women, children, and the elderly.
7. Marginalised people: Individuals or communities who are usually inhibited from various activities and spaces due to stereotypes, negative images, or preconceived notions of society. Ex: Transgender, sex workers, refugees, destitute, etc.
Inclusivity: Path to Barrier-Free Environment
A venue or experience must be accessible to everyone, regardless of age, disability, or background. This is ensured via inclusive design. Everyone benefits from it. It attempts to make public spaces accessible to all people, regardless of their age, abilities, or circumstances. Its foundation is the straightforward notion that creating for as many different people as possible results in better designs and serves a larger audience.
In the current world, accessibility is recognized as a basic necessity for every individual. There are attempts to research and develop barrier-free features that can be fundamental to all design concepts worldwide. The awareness level about the need for barrier-free access needs to be promoted and supported. The existing code must be effectively implemented to break barriers and open doors for an inclusive society. This new design approach will equip a barrier-free environment for all.
Designing for opportunity is the next basic element that has to be incorporated since this would mean understanding the situation of the users and designing for them, their pain points, and their needs in the situation. Not allowing a person equal opportunities and participation is a violation of his/ her rights as a citizen of this country. Unbiased opportunity is the idea that everyone should be treated equally, without being constrained by arbitrary restrictions, prejudices, or preferences. According to studies conducted by stakeholders like the Federal Glass Ceiling Commission and Forbes, businesses with diverse employee populations produce 15 times more income than those with the fewest differences.
Certain people and even entire groups may become “invisible” in official statistics due to a lack of acknowledgment. For instance, when survey employees conduct interviews, a handicapped household member may not be included on the household roster in many cultures. Tools are being created to assess whether people are being treated with respect or not.
Ways to synthesize Man-made Barriers
“Environmental Barriers” are giant constraints for impaired and marginalized persons in being independent and empowering themselves. Though unintentional, most of our buildings today remain inaccessible to many. This is largely due to the lack of conscious efforts, concerns for the disabled, and lack of basic information on what constitutes an accessible design. It’s the responsibility of the other social segments to remove these man-made built-environmental barriers in order to empower disabled persons and provide them the basic facilities. Disabled people along with physical barriers, also face unseen and neglected social, economic and attitudinal barriers that inhibit them from effectively participating in society.
A “barrier-free environment” perspective is to be approached rather than just a “barrier-free building”. Widespread use/application of barrier-free design will take research and development, commitment, and investment. We need to change how we think about access to the built environment to fuel this new investment and power the politics of barrier-free design. It is all about being sufficiently informed since the first step towards supporting or applying it is being informed. Barrier-free environmental designs are the way to go as they upgrade the past and help in the present and the positive environmental implications on future generations would be staggering.
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