Can things – objects, homes, thoroughfare, transport, etc. etc. etc. – be designed for all, and for all time? Leave alone differences in abilities, what about differences in cultures and conventions that determine usage and practice? And further, what about the changes to usage and practice that creep in with time? How can any design be for all, and for all time? This would be a fair and reasonable question, except that we have examples to prove the contrary. Take, for instance, the ubiquitous wheel. Invented some five thousand years ago, the wheel now drives everything: from transport to turbines to the computer mouse (scroll wheel) and some of the state-of-the art white canes. The light bulb and traffic signal lights may be 19th and 20th century inventions, as is Braille, but these too have found universal acceptance and are adapted for use in diverse ways. Mass Open Online Courses (MOOCs), designed in world’s best universities for a specific student population are now being offered, free of charge, for a clientele of millions across the globe, breaking barriers of language, race, culture and even age and abilities.
All these are not merely examples of global acceptance and use, which in many cases even transcends temporal, spatial and other divides. The objects and ideas they represent proclaim the possibility of thinking in terms of inclusivity and universality, that is, they are accessible for all as they can be adopted and adapted by all human populations. As Sumit Dagar, the young designer who has won Rolex’s international award for his proposal to build a low-cost Braille smartphone said recently, “Technology is giving everybody superpowers, but it is making the blind even more disabled … [but] design is something that bridges the gap between users and technology.”
Designing for all, making products, places and ideas that are barrier-free not only makes for an inclusive society that respects the contribution of each individual; designing for all also good business sense and is sustainable. When shops and establishments are accessible to people of all ages and abilities, they get more footfalls. When public infrastructure and buildings are designed keeping ‘universal principles’ in mind, they remain in use regardless of the changes in the demographic profile, leading to enormous savings in the long term. Gradually phasing out products and processes that exclude, leveraging technology and creativity to make changes to hitherto inaccessible places and services, and cultivating and promoting a culture of inclusive thinking will make for a harmonious society that learns from each other and builds on each other’s strengths. As Paul Hunt, one of the pioneers of the ‘social model’ of disability says in his essay, A Critical Condition (In ‘Stigma: The Experience of Disability: London, Geoffrey Chapman. 1966), ‘Illness and impairment are facts of existence, diminishment and death are there to be thought about and must be taken account of in any realistic view of the world’ … Thinking in terms of universal design would fall in with Hunt’s realistic view of life, as existential bounds, in many ways, is the same for all humanity.
The concept of ‘universal’ or ‘inclusive’ design is particularly appropriate in the context of designing infrastructure and technology-based services and tools. These are facilities that are meant for making life comfortable for everybody. When they are designed for the non-disabled, failing to take account of various disabilities that birth and time can cause, they exclude large sections of the users or make it difficult for them to carry on unhampered with their lives.
[From ‘InSight’, a publication of Retina India, January 2013: special issue on accessible infrastructure and I.T.]