Carol Thomas has been working with CAE for four years, delivering training, helping design the Pathways Academy and developing design standards for clients.
In this special Disability History Month Q&A she shares details of her work as well as providing an insight into some of the main barriers disabled people are facing during the pandemic and how we’ll see environments change.
Why did you decide to specialise in inclusive design/access?
I was working as a Local Authority Planner in the 1980s when the Royal Town Planning Institute published a practice advice note encouraging Local Authorities to appoint an Access Officer.
I was delegated to do this at Monmouth District Council and as part of this I worked with the local disability groups.
I enjoyed this work, so when the Welsh Office (this was before the Wales Assembly) funded a two year Access Officer Wales role at Disability Wales, to develop an access programme for Wales, I applied. I loved it and stayed for over 10 years.
What are some of the biggest access issues you feel disabled and older people face on a daily basis today?
One of the main issues is having to research and plan before going anywhere as you’re not able to take it for granted that it’ll be accessible for them, in the way that non-disabled people do.
It’s difficult to be spontaneous and decide to go somewhere simply because it’s a nice day. Even with careful planning, one thing going wrong in the access chain can ruin plans. The audio/visual information on the bus not working, a taxi driver refusing to take someone, the lift out of order, unhelpful staff … and so on.
This knocks disabled person’s confidence so they worry more the next time. This is before they get to do what they’re going there for – work, education, shopping, leisure etc.
How do you feel the pandemic has changed inclusiveness and accessibility for disabled people?
I’ve recently read a report about the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on disabled people – Locked out: liberating disabled people’s lives and rights in Wales beyond COVID-19 – and this echoes discussions I’ve had with disabled people throughout the UK and beyond. For many disabled people, there has been increased isolation, loneliness, anxiety and depression.
This is, of course, due to many factors – the need to shield, the reduction in personal care visits and so on, but accessibility, or lack of it, has played a part. The increase in online activity for work, education, shopping etc, has been welcomed by some disabled people, but it’s not been good for everyone.
Some disabled people aren’t used to the technology or don’t have access to it. But disabled people’s organisations have done a great job in reaching out to help people, providing resources and training.
Similarly, the recognition that working from home can benefit companies as well as employees has been welcomed by many people, and hopefully the option to work from home at least some of the time will stay after Covid-19 restrictions are lifted.
What do you see as the most pressing inclusive design/access issues that we’ll face as we continue to emerge from the pandemic?
Throughout the Covid restrictions, disabled and older people have been much less visible in our local environments.
There is concern that ‘out of sight, out of mind’ means that their requirements have simply not been given adequate consideration in plans for post Covid changes. This has been noticeable in changes to our streets and public spaces.
Many authorities have seized the opportunity of the reduction in cars in our city and town centres during Covid restrictions (and the increase in walking and cycling) to introduce Low Traffic Neighbourhoods. And there are of course benefits to this.
However, unless disabled people are actively engaged in planning this, these areas will be less accessible for many of them.
If you could make one law today regarding inclusive design and accessibility what would it be?
A phrase that has been around for a long time with regard to disabled people is ‘nothing about us, without us.’
This could be the foundation for a law of co-production that requires active, meaningful, and continuous engagement with disabled people in the design and development of any environment or service provided for them. This will automatically mean inclusion of disabled and older people.
This should mean that any new or renewed environment can be assumed to be accessible and truly inclusive. This could, and should, be part of the Equality Act, but so often it isn’t.
Can you tell us about one CAE project that you’ve worked on that has made a significant impact in terms of inclusion and access?
The Pathways Academy provides inclusive design and access training for young disabled people and will, I believe, have a significant impact.
An increase in the number of disabled people engaged in the access sector will bring lasting benefits, and there’s also a legacy just from the first year of Pathways in terms of providing inclusive training courses.
From the beginning, we were committed to ensuring that any young disabled person who wanted to do the training would have their access needs met so that they could participate on equal terms.
We stayed flexible so if and when new requirements to increase inclusion were identified, we did our best to respond. The feedback we have had from the first year participants has been tremendously positive.
You’ve recently worked on writing the European access standards. What change do you hope these new standards will bring?
The requirements for accessibility do not change as you travel so a Europe-wide shared understanding of access requirements should mean that people can travel confidently.
The new European Standard, BS EN 17210: 2021, is different from usual accessibility standards, which focus on specifying dimensions for accessibility.
The European Standard focuses on the functional requirements for an accessible and usable built environment. This is outcome-based with a fundamental requirement for all of the aspects of the built environment to work together to deliver accessibility.
Of course, as with all standards, this can’t deliver inclusion because an inclusive built environment is much more than the physical aspects. The attitudes of the management, staff and people using the environment, the decisions made on how the building operates and the way services are delivered will all impact on the experience of those using the environment.