Marney Walker is a CAE Associate Consultant, PhD student and independent occupational therapist (OT) specialising in the design of inclusive and accessible housing. In this Q&A, she discusses the important part occupational therapists play in housing, why learning from people with lived experience is key, and why a lack of housing options is the biggest hurdle facing disabled people.
How do you define inclusive design and accessibility?
My understanding of inclusive and accessible design is that it should make it easier and safer for everyone to use all aspects of the environment. Inclusive and accessible housing should ensure that all barriers that might prevent us from using and enjoying
all aspects of our homes are removed or minimised.
Why did you decide to specialise in inclusive design/access?
Learning from people with lived experience is central to my practice. As an occupational therapist I spent several years working with older and disabled people to find suitable solutions to adapt their homes. I soon realised how limited and potentially stigmatising the options available can be.
This has convinced me that the negative impact of environments that appear clinical or institutional cannot be underestimated. This led to my interest in finding better solutions through inclusive design.
What led you to train as an occupational therapist?
I was inspired to train as an occupational therapist through my work as an administrative assistant to Mo Moira, Welfare Rights Social Worker at Scope in the1980s. Her energy and enthusiasm, wisdom, and commitment to ensuring that people living with cerebral palsy had access to funding and support was inspirational.
I learnt from her, first-hand, how much the design of the environment can reduce reliance on assistance from others. At the time, so much depended on navigating social attitudes and reliance on goodwill. Mo is the daughter of Alex Moira one of the founding members of Habinteg Housing Association, so I feel that by working for CAE, given its close association with Habinteg, my career has come full circle.
How important are occupational therapists in housing?
Occupational therapists have a unique contribution to make to the design of housing. Central to our practice is to consider the person and what they want to be able to do in relation to their environment. They can play a vital role in interpreting access standards by explaining the reasons for different requirements, and how much barriers in the home can impact on being able to fully participate in everyday life.
What do you think are some of the biggest access issues facing disabled and older people on a daily basis?
One of the biggest access issues continues to be the lack of accessible housing. There needs to be a better understanding of the real costs of inaccessible housing not only to individuals, but to society. An inclusive and accessible home can play a significant role in maintaining health and wellbeing.
What do you see as the biggest hurdle facing disabled people in the built environment in the next 5-10 years?
Lack of options in housing. Where the affordable housing options are very limited for all, affordable wheelchair accessible housing is still scarce. Where it is available there should be more overt and explicit marketing so that the people who need it can find it.
It is my impression that where wheelchair accessible homes are being built they are often being occupied by non-disabled people, partly because they are not affordable, but also because they are not widely advertised.
If you could make one law today regarding inclusive design and accessibility what would it be?
The Government’s recent proposal to raise the mandatory accessibility standard for new homes in England to the M4(2) Category 2 accessible and adaptable dwellings standard is welcomed.
However, a mandatory requirement for at least 10% of new-build housing to be wheelchair accessible would also address a significant unmet need. These mandatory requirements should include a proportion of commercial buildings that are being repurposed as residential.
Can you name one CAE project that you’ve worked on that has made a significant impact in terms of inclusion and access?
I have conducted a number of detailed appraisals on planning applications for large-scale housing developments. The most useful aspect of this work, in terms of influence, is the chance to begin a dialogue with architects and developers who often see the building regulations as an aspiration rather than realising that these are minimum requirements.
Being able to explain how certain key aspects, such as inaccessible thresholds, are not just a detail but a barrier to getting in and out of your own home, goes some way to raising awareness. With their design skills, architects are ideally placed to find more imaginative solutions to creating more attractive accessible homes. It is unfortunate that this level of scrutiny is not routinely applied to all new housing applications.
What are some other projects are you proud about?
In 2019 I was successful in being awarded a bursary to embark on a PhD at Lab4Living at Sheffield Hallam University. My experience of advising on the design of housing for older people, led to gaining knowledge and experience of applying the principles of visual access to support function and orientation for people living with dementia.