Two Barriers to Inclusive Design

Inclusive Design is broadly defined as the advocacy for and participation of often overlooked or marginalised people in the design process.  While the concepts of participation, inclusion, fairness, and accessibility seem well known in our everyday, there seem to be significant barriers to their use in design projects. Amongst others, two barriers are proposed below to help start engaging withInclusive Design and the challenges that can emerge.

Barrier 1: Tangled Definitions of Inclusive Design

There isn’t consensus on how something is or becomes inclusive, mainly because there is no single, unquestioned, nice, and easy way to understand it. To make matters more challenging, there are a number of neighbouring approaches that are now intertwined and tangled in what’s considered Inclusive Design. This includes Participatory Design, Universal Design, and Design for All. Designers now face tricky situations where advocating for marginalised groups must also work with ‘making designs as usable for everyone regardless of ability’ (Universal), and ‘must be accessible, convenient for everyone in society to use and responsive to an evolving human diversity’ (Design for All). Trying to balance these understandings of Inclusive Design in a single project or space can create serious issues, as seen in the design on crosswalks:

After the invention of the car, sidewalks were created to safely divide pedestrians and drivers. In most cases, this meant creating an elevated boardwalk that could clearly divide the two groups. Later, curb cuts were carved out to help wheelchair users from the sidewalk to the street. These also became helpful to people with trolleys or prams, and cyclists. However, it then created an unsafe situation for the visually-impaired who could no longer distinguish the sidewalk from the road. The next step was to install textured blocks at each intersection, and to paint them a bold yellow for visibility. But in doing so, this made it more difficult for wheelchair users to cross, and worrisome for cyclists to roll over. Then, after adding signs and sounds to the crosswalk, they became overwhelming for those with sensory sensitivities. And, after repeating this at every intersection, the aesthetic appeal of a city can be compromised.

This example shows how creating a usable and convenient environment for everyone all the time is not simply about fulfilling the needs of each possible individual. As we find, it’s also extremely difficult to decide what is convenient for each person. The crosswalk has become a good example to illustrate that while something may be usable by all, it can also be uncomfortable for many.

Barrier 2: Democracy

Most western countries use democracy to govern their states. The idea that everyone has equal say in decisions has become synonymous to fairness and equality. However, it is debated wether or not Inclusive Design is democratic. Many point out that Inclusive Design is democratic because it insists on including marginalised and otherwise unheard voices of society. In this way, their inclusion brings us closer to a truly democratic process. However, a basic goal of Inclusive Design is to give a voice to the minority within a system that always favours the majority. It shouldn’t be possible to privilege a minority in democratic processes. This would suggest that Inclusive Design is indeed undemocratic. Although suggesting Inclusion is undemocratic may appear radical, it is rather common in practice. The design of a building shouldn’t include a ramp since the majority of users will opt for stairs. Yet it would be unacceptable in the public eye, and even unlawful to create a new multi-level building without ramps, elevators, or rails. In addition, even the concept of Innovation is undemocratic as it rejects the statement “why change what still works” and the uncommon. Still, it’s important to relate good design and inclusion. In this example, a ramp could be preferred if the design is well adapted to the brief and the space, rather than tucked away and added to the building as an afterthought.

Still, despite these barriers, Inclusive Design is gaining traction and deserves attention. This year has shown us how society has grown complacent to the inequalities and injustices that exist. It is our responsibility to face these difficult barriers and engage with them and the others that come along to ensure a truly inclusive future for all..whatever that may mean, and how ever that may be decided.

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