In the next instalment of our CAE Consultant series, we speak with Chloe Hixson who has been working with CAE for six months, but has trained with them regularly since 2016. Chloe is a wheelchair user and has experience of working within communities to bring in and incorporate disabled people’s lived experiences. Find out why she thinks there should be legal consequences for developers who ignore inclusive design guidance.
Why did you decide to specialise in access and what was your pathway into the field?
I started working with museums when I finished my master’s degree, and as anyone who works in heritage can tell you, volunteer experience is essential and you do a lot of work for free before being able to get into the field. This led me to work with a museum that was doing a large-scale physical redevelopment.
Although I had been doing volunteer access work with them for at least a year with the explicit intent to find paid non-access work at the museum, it became clear to me that hiring a disabled person was something that had not even occurred to them.
As the project neared completion, I noticed on one of my tours of the renovation that there were stairs leading somewhere, so I asked where they led and was told, amazingly casually, that they led to the staff room. This was a turning point for me in the recognition that “this won’t change unless we do it ourselves”.
I decided to face my internalised ableism, appreciating that, as someone with lived experience of inaccessibility, I was in a great position to make a change, and decided to see where this road took me.
What are some of the biggest access issues you feel disabled and older people currently face on a day-to-day basis?
I think the biggest issue on a day-to-day basis, is lack of accessible and joined-up transport. In the larger urban areas, transport may be accessible, although in places like Central London I would still say there is a problem for disabled people, such as having to rely on helpful bus drivers to use public transport.
Rural areas are experiencing a greatly reduced service – and that is without even touching on inaccessibility issues.
How do you feel the pandemic has changed inclusiveness and accessibility for disabled people?
I believe that in some ways we have seen a positive shift, at least in the early days of the pandemic, in accepting that we can be more inclusive in how we operate; just because we have always traditionally recruited or employed or worked in traditional ways doesn’t mean we cannot implement more inclusive workplace practices.
As the pandemic has continued, however, I feel that changed after the lockdown ended. We saw workplaces revert to the old ways once disabled people lost the government’s support to continue shielding.
This fits into a narrative where disabled people are not inherently valued for what we do; we have lives, and yet many non-disabled members of communities felt we should just stay home while they lived out theirs. The pandemic highlighted an “us versus them” mentality where a large portion of the population resented having to go into lockdown for the good of their community.
In terms of the progress we made at the beginning, the impact has just been lost, and has shown that once again disabled people’s needs and access requirements are just a box-ticking exercise, and that accessibility during the pandemic wasn’t seen as a long term, positive, change by most people.
Meanwhile, the pandemic has enlarged the disabled community because we now have vulnerable people, who used to be able to engage more with life, but who are now being excluded from many aspects of daily activities.
What do you see as the biggest hurdle facing disabled people in the built environment in the next 5-10 years?
I would say the lack of consultation of disabled people for Green policies. Disabled people are going to be hit with this in the next few years, particularly, as climate change continues to impact the way we travel, and the possibility of pedestrian zones and no-car zones.
Green policies that do not consider our needs as disabled people continue to be shoe-horned in without consultation, and negatively impact disabled people. Our transport network is severely lacking in accessibility, as well as not being fit for purpose or environmentally friendly. I feel like this is just going to get worse until someone invests in green transport that is truly inclusive.
I’m worried that greener policies are going to be rushed through without time to consider how they impact disabled people.
If you could make one law today regarding inclusive design and accessibility, what would it be?
That there would be consequences for ignoring inclusive design. These need not be punitive; a rating system could be developed that rates spaces based on the ways in which venues are able to engage with both the disabled and abled communities simultaneously.
I also think that inappropriate venues should not be given planning permission to proceed. If, for example, someone wants to open a restaurant in a building that cannot be made accessible, and for which the proposal doesn’t specifically include adapting the space, then the project should not be granted planning or change of use permission.
If you could change one thing in the built environment today, to make it easier for wheelchair users and older people to get around, what would it be?
Building in ramps where there are steps! I am always impressed whenever I see a built-in ramp right next to a set of steps; not a separate entrance, but right in the main entrance, that doesn’t require wheelchair users to sit in the rain while a ramp gets brought out.
Having an accessible entrance can make or break an experience, it sets the tone for the rest of the time you spend in the building, and not having one can be a huge barrier for wheelchair users to return again.