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The vital importance of designing for disability

This following article was first published by Estates Gazette on the 17th February 2023 and can be found on the website here The importance of designing for disability | EG News (egi.co.uk)."



Author: Emma Jackson

Photo by David Pisnoy via Unsplash


The latest government estimates indicate that one in five people in the working-age population are classed as disabled – with 33% having a long-term health condition. An estimated one in seven of us in the UK are neurodiverse and around one in four of us will experience mental ill health at some point in our lifetime. This means we are all likely to have been impacted by either having a visible or invisible disability ourselves, or knowing someone who has.


Despite that, the real estate sector, although now quite openly discussing the importance of representation around gender and ethnicity, is disconcertingly quiet about these issues.

Enter AbilityRE. For those of less familiar with our organisation, we are a recently formed non-profit aimed at driving diversity, equity, inclusion and accessibility within the real estate and built environment sector. Our single purpose is to make real estate a better place for people of all abilities. We passionately believe that by increasing the diversity profile of the real estate industry, we will naturally improve the inclusivity of the built environment to the benefit of all.


Change of mindset


The principles of inclusive or universal design (design which includes as many people as possible) have been around for quite some time, but still too many people in the UK find their lives needlessly and frustratingly restricted by features of the built environment that make workplaces, services and even social interaction inaccessible.


Many built environment professionals will understand common barriers such as steps without ramps or lifts; lack of automatic push-button doors, lack of accessible parking or washrooms but what about cultural barriers to our industry, subconscious bias, and our reluctance to accept and accommodate different ways of working?


As an industry we have a moral imperative to change. Physical inclusion is absolutely mirrored and partnered by economic, social and political inclusion. The way places are built and designed are amongst the biggest determinants of life chances and inequalities.


Although a growing number of progressive, architects and designers in our industry realise that the best environments are accessible for all, mindsets in the industry as a whole, are slow to change. Many organisations claim to be disability inclusive, and have a genuine desire to be, but are perhaps unsure how to start, or are unwilling to change long-established processes to make a proactive impact.


There are plenty of challenges to be overcome. Many architects and designers include only the minimum accessibility regulations mandated, and retrofitting at a later date is often more expensive and limited in what can actually be achieved.


There is still not enough good education around the issue of disability and neurodiversity inclusion. Disability culture and heritage is not generally taught in our schools, colleges or embedded in built environment-focused courses, so disabled voices are largely unheard. Disability and Neurodiversity needs to be embedded in the education of built environment professionals to inform and guide the creation of better spaces, better environments, use of better materials and more.


Developing best practices


This grows increasingly vital as we live and work longer than ever before, and become increasingly likely to face these challenges during our working lives.


To help us achieve our purpose, AbilityRE will be working closely with a small group of strategic partners across, but not limited to the real estate industry. Gerald Eve and Knight Frank were the first to partner with AbilityRE, keen to drive inclusion and accessibility for their own employees and across the built environment sector, and we hope to announce more soon. We are also working with industry governing bodies, including the RICS and RTPI to support and develop best practices relating to disability, neurodiversity, long term health and mental ill-health across those organisations, their member groups and companies.

We firmly believe that when the industry recognises a broader lived experience and understands who they are designing for, we will blend function with form to create beautiful, accessible spaces – not to mention job opportunities for many capable and talented people to whom the industry has previously been a closed door.


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