Arup are an independent firm of designers, planners, engineers, consultants and technical specialists offering a broad range of professional services. Mei-Yee Man Oram co-leads the Accessible Environments team at Arup, working on a wide range of projects relating to inclusive design. Here she talks about the crucial importance of inclusive architectural design in challenging inequalities and making spaces accessible to all.

In this day and age, we as an industry should make an effort to create environments that encourage social interaction, integration, communication and respect – places that celebrate diversity and difference. In other words, places that are inclusive.

History is full of examples of how architecture has been used to create segregation and separation within a community. You can see this in the idea of a downstairs for servants and an upstairs for their masters. And you can see it in plantations, which were designed to enforce the imposed hierarchy of master over slave through location, quality and architectural finishes. 

Even today, ‘poor doors’ provide separate entrances within residential developments for residents of affordable housing. Legislation such as the European Convention on Human Rights is supposed to ensure that people are not discriminated against because of their social class. Yet these entrances serve as visible, physical markers of the differences between our neighbours and us.

It doesn’t have to be this way. Take the Galehead hut, for example – a 38-bed lodge at the top of the Appalachian Mountains, rebuilt by the Appalachian Mountain Club. Some people questioned why the lodge needed to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), arguing that wheelchair users would not be able to reach the lodge up the rugged 4.6-mile trail. 

When the lodge reopened, disabled people from the University of New Hampshire’s Northeast Passage programme proved the critics wrong and made the trek there. But when reaching the lodge, the group were challenged with the question: If you can negotiate the trail, surely you don’t need the ramp at the lodge entrance as you can use the steps? Jill Gravink, the programme’s director, responded by saying: “Why bother putting steps on the hut at all? Why not drag yourself in through a window?'” 

This serves as a reminder for us to continually challenge perceptions of what’s considered ‘normal’ or conventional in architecture. By challenging (or removing) the idea of what’s normal, we can widen our capabilities as designers of the built environment and better serve our users. 

There is an opportunity for designers to think outside the box when it comes to inclusive design. Rethinking conventional architecture provides a blank canvas, opening possibilities for innovation and inclusivity within the built environment. 300 years ago, the prospect of a lift was inconceivable – now, they can be found in almost every building. 

By accepting that all people, regardless of circumstance, deserve the same opportunities to participate within society (such as trekking up a mountain with their peers), architecture becomes something that enables a world where everyone can participate equally. It is important that we embrace and celebrate diversity and see this as a great opportunity for creativity. By balancing all of the possible uses of architecture, we can create solutions that are inclusive and usable by 100% of the population. It has been said that design enlightens and improves the quality of life. Great design is something that should be available to all sectors of society.

This opinion piece is based on Mei-Yee Man Oram's original article published on the Arup website in October 2014.

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