“Every time I go into a shop, I now look at it from a different perspective. It really surprised me to learn how regulated buildings are, and that there are very specific criteria you have to meet for things like the width of a door or gradient of a ramp,” says Celestine Fraser, 28.
Later this year, Celestine – who lives with postural orthostatic tachycardia syndrome (PoTS) and Ehlers-Danlos syndrome – will graduate from the Centre for Accessible Environment’s Pathways Academy programme.
The nine-month, 11 module programme was created in 2020 to give students the confidence, skills and support needed to kick start a career in inclusive design and access.
Thirst for knowledge
As a writer, Celestine became more interested in disability topics as her own chronic illness progressed. As a result, she set up her own media company, Just Copy, which uses writing, copywriting and film to communicate disability culture and issues. She also works with charities, brands and businesses to help them communicate disability to their audiences.
“I only started using a wheelchair a few years ago,” she says. “And, because of that I started to encounter a whole bunch of different access barriers. That, coupled with my interest in writing about disability, made me think I really need to learn more.
“As I often write about accessibility, I got more interested in inclusive design. I also read Sara Hendren’s What Can A Body Do? and I just wanted to learn more.”
Celestine began researching the topic further, found CAE on Twitter and, in April 2022, she spotted a tweet about the Pathways Academy and applied.
“I’ve learnt so much over the past six months. I thought I knew the basics, but I’ve learned to really see access as something beyond my lived experience. That’s what I’ve enjoyed so much about being in a group with other disabled people who have completely different disabilities. I’ve slowly started to look at the built environment in terms of everyone’s disabilities,” she says.
“For example, we learnt about colour contrast and designing for neurodiversity, and all these different facets to inclusive design, now I’m looking out for them when I go out.”
Lessons and legislation
The Pathways modules range from grasping new inclusive design and access auditing skills to learning about housing standards and building regulations.
“Getting to grips with all the legislation was a bit overwhelming at first, but there was never any pressure to understand something all in one day. We were drip-fed the tougher topics.
The trainers also ensured the online classes were accessible and inclusive.
“There was no pressure to keep your camera on if you were having a bad day or to speak up if you were tired. It was a good balance having online classes and in-person days, especially as fatigue affects me.
“In fact, the in-person days were really fun. One of the most memorable lessons was at Friends House in London. We did a tour of the building and audited the roads and street surrounding it to see what was accessible and what was not. We measured the inclines of pavements, using various tools and people were visibly having fun while learning.”
Hope for the future
After several months of hard work, concentration and focus Celestine is looking forward to completing the course in late Summer.
“We’ve learned so much and covered so many topics, it’ll feel so satisfying to finish and get a certificate… it’ll be so rewarding. In the future I’d like to add access consulting as a new service to my business, and potentially disability awareness training. I love the idea of doing talks or training.”
To other young disabled people, Celestine’s advice is ‘don’t hesitate.’
“I did a taster day last year, which pushed me to sign up for Pathways. I’d recommend getting in touch with CAE to learn more if you’re interested. It’s an amazing opportunity with high-quality tuition and it’s free.
“This experience has really opened my eyes to a whole different way of looking at the world around me, and I’ll never see the built environment in quite the same way again.”