Transforming the access experience of disabled people
Clive Durdle MSc BA (Econ) FCIH
29 November 2007
Able July 2007 p51 has an article about powered wheelchairs that notes:
“most still resemble traditional manual wheelchairs to some extent; hardly surprising since all have their origin in American wheelchair manufacturer Everest and Jenning’s idea – round 50 years ago to add a drive mechanism to an existing manual wheelchair.”
Advertisements for mobility scooters and wheelchairs commonly use terms like “invacare”. Is a medical model still prevalent? Is thinking incremental instead of – as has happened with the Dyson Vacuum Cleaner – stopping and thinking matters through from first principles?
Freight transport over the last few decades has undergone a revolution, from the old individual movement of small packets in nets and pallets in ports to containers.
Is the world of “mobility” in a pre containerisation state?
Design for life
Everyone has problems about getting themselves or moving something from A to B, or things changing with time. The last mile problem is a classic issue in transport studies.
Some problems are easily solved, others complex. For probably historical and social reasons disability issues may not have been tackled as general design or engineering or technical issues, but an interesting perspective is that any invention is a prosthetic to enable.
The tasks we all face are reasonably well defined – getting up, getting dressed, toileting and bathing, self care, relationships, eating, getting out of our homes, working, getting around, finding things we need, exercise.
Some of these issues become more problematic and complex with disabilities but they are not difficult problems.
Disability focussed solutions tend to be wheel or stick or ramp based, with some hoisting. For example, someone may have a hoist to get out of bed, some form of wheel chair or Zimmer frame or crutch to get to a shower, a lightweight wheelchair to get to a car that then has to be put in the car. There may be internal and external wheelchairs. There may have been “disabled adaptations” to homes.
There are many very small very specialist firms in the disability world, with strong links to health care organisations. It is an interesting business sector with elements of early industrial revolution Birmingham type models and very large health based – and therefore possibly institutionalised – organisations. Prices are acknowledged to be very high in comparison to other sectors. The business model is about adapting, not design from first principles.
But Britain is a world leader in design and invention – Conran, Dyson, Royal College of Arts, Architecture, Concorde, Hovercraft, Sinclair, Commission on Architecture and the Built Environment.
There are several modes of transport – walking, cycling, cars, vans, buses, trains, ships and planes. These have reasonably clear functions with overlaps – towards freight or people, a few people or many people, short or medium or long range, needing various levels of infrastructure, roads, railway tracks, all terrain, air traffic control, transport logistics.
Sustainability, climate change, and ecological orientation are now core issues in transport strategy.
Disability focussed solutions may be understood as adaptive – for example adding wheels to a chair and then a motor, or designing buses with ramps. I am unaware of the sedan being used much, but the ancient way of carrying kings and important people did have all terrain advantages! The stretcher trolley is still used in some social situations like hospitals.
We seem to have a very strong preference for multimedia experiences whilst shopping, touching and feeling and looking at and smelling what we are after, discussing, negotiating, having human interactions. We love to complete a ritual of exchange in person in a busy place like a market.
What do we do to get to a market or shopping centre or place of work or leisure? A few walk, some cycle, many use a car, some a bus or train. We have invented park and ride as a solution to the issues caused.
For example, a typical journey for a disabled Shopmobility member involves getting themselves together to get out of the house, ordering and waiting for Community Transport, being taken to the shopping centre, transferring to a mobility scooter, having an interesting experience using it in town, waiting in various queues, interacting with various staff and individuals when transacting business, struggling with shopping and struggling home afterwards.
I understand this type of experience as being a touchstone of are we seriously working towards integrated transport solutions with easy transfers between transport modes? The agenda is wider than “door to door” – it should encompass all aspects of a person’s life and take account of the specific issues people face. Are we truly working towards human pro – active systems?
There may be a significant gap in the suite of transport solutions because the habit of adaptation has diverted attention from thinking things through from a person centred perspective.
Wheelchairs and mobility scooters may be seen as a prototype single person vehicle (SPV), but the disability focus has prevented it as being seen as a logical transport niche. Jeanette Winterson in Stone Gods uses a similar idea to what this paper proposes that she calls the Solo.
The concept is of a short to medium range multi purpose vehicle, able to carry a person, shopping, possibly a baby, possibly two people, with reasonable all terrain capabilities and weather protection, ability to go down shopping aisles and similar small spaces, that looks good like a Smart Car and becomes as fashionable as a Lambretta.
It is between cycling and cars and may be best developed first in cycle friendly environments like the new towns or large pedestrianised areas.
The car is not a good design solution when it has a single occupant – American High Occupancy Vehicle lanes are a tacit admission of that. The concept is of a range of small personal transport solutions that may be tailored to individual preferences. There have been some prototypes like Toyota’s I – unit
There are other design possibilities – these may sound like science fiction and James Bond but many of these have evolved in the planetary eco-systems and available technologies in robotics and similar fields have found appropriate solutions.
Spiders with eight legs and abilities to create webs are of note. Darwin found spiders on the Beagle far out at sea – they had flown there on their webs.
James Bond type technologies for climbing walls or even jet packs may be considered.
Why are not rock climbing and abseiling technologies widely used in the disability world?
What about sailing and water based technologies?
Are we too concerned about ramps and steps and lifts when all terrain equipment that can safely climb vertical walls is probably already available? The fields of Potholing, kayaking, space exploration, fighter pilots, robotics, artificial intelligence, and space exploration may already have appropriate solutions to cross fertilise.
This paper envisages a series of personalised solutions to whatever issues someone faces – we do not change the weather when it is bad, we dress up appropriately.
The other main vector is around standardisation of design solutions. There are common issues like fixing equipment safely that may be resolved by both designing the thing to be fixed and the receiving mechanism together – as has happened with containerisation. Because we are transporting humans, the situation someone is fixed in should be comfortable, well designed, and relaxing and not institutionalised. The needs of people with autistic spectrum disorders is currently under researched.
The idea is that the “solo” may be used on medium scale – cars, minivans, buses coaches and trams – and large scale – trains ships aircraft – easily and appropriately. The pieces should all fit together and come apart easily. Why not put four solos together to create a road car? A single person electrically powered version of something using design concepts from the Citroen C3 Pluriel is a further example of the possibilities I am envisaging.
There is no reason that standardisation should not apply to the whole system – including homes, all of the built environment, offices, shops, and transport.