Shining a Spotlight on Access post COVID-19 with Chris Harrowell

Published: 20 Apr 2021

Chris HarrowellChris has been with Centre for Accessible Environments (CAE) since the early 1990’s but has been more involved with the organisation as a freelance access consultant since 2012.

He provides consultancy input on bid calculations, inclusive design appraisals, access audits and general advice on accessible design to clients.

How do you define inclusive design and accessibility?

Creating an environment, ethos, products and means of communication that include everyone across the age, ability, ethnicity and gender spectrum.

Why did you decide to specialise in inclusive design/access?

It was a natural progression from my mainstream work as an architect with personal experience of disability.

I could see positive results from making buildings work better for a wider range of users.

As an architectural student in the early 1970’s I was designing buildings to be accessible when it was still considered unusual and a rarity.

The main source of reference was Selwyn Goldsmith’s “Designing for the Disabled”, which was first published back in 1963.

Is there a particular CAE project that you’ve worked on that has made a significant impact in terms of inclusion and access?

We like to feel that any access and inclusion project has an impact and a small project can make just as huge a difference to quality of life as a large one.

One case I do remember was simply an audit I provided to a college to show how inaccessible it was for a disabled student. The student was being moved by his Local Authority from the fully accessible college he was already studying at in another part of the UK to an inaccessible college in his home Borough for funding reasons.

The audit helped him win his appeal and he was able to complete his course at the accessible college. A further win was that the inaccessible college then asked if they could use the audit to make improvements that would benefit future disabled students and improve their business model, which they did.

What are some of the biggest access issues you feel disabled and older people face on a day to day basis today?

The lack of joined-up thinking in terms of accessible buildings, housing, infrastructure, transport, the external and internal environment, service delivery and communication.

Although individual elements may be to a good standard of inclusion, there are inconsistencies and gaps where users fall through the cracks and the whole process is rendered inaccessible.

The bigger picture needs to be addressed as a whole to be seamless. Local Authority budget cuts and the loss of Access Officers have not helped this.

The lack of good affordable accessible housing is also a concern, with older people not being able to return to their homes after hospital treatment, resulting in bed blocking.

What do you see as the biggest hurdle facing disabled people in the built environment in the next 5-10 years?

Keeping inclusive design high on the agenda in the face of reduced budgets and competing social priorities.

Although we have the Equality Act and Building Regulations Approved Document M, these cannot be taken for granted and hard won battles must not be gradually stripped away by stealth.

You specialise in inclusivity for people who are deaf/hard of hearing. What do you see as the biggest issue facing people who have a ‘hidden disability’ today?

The main hurdle is isolation and adequate access to communication.

We’ve seen some recent examples of this since the start of the pandemic, including the initial failure to provide sign language interpreters for government pandemic TV news broadcasts.

There was also a clear lack of promotion of the use of clear face masks for lip-reading in schools.

Wearing your access consultant hat, what one thing has stood out for you the most during the Covid-19 pandemic?

The enabling power of technology and the importance of access to good broadband services and IT resources for all.

How do you feel the pandemic has changed inclusiveness and accessibility for disabled people?

In one sense it has had an equalising effect in that others now realise what it is like to be restricted in their day-to-day activities and not to be able to access public transport, shops, pubs and places of entertainment.

On the other hand it has led to loss of independence, difficulty maintaining care support, isolation and mental health issues.

The increased use of technology and use of video communication platforms for meetings has created both benefits and challenges.

Even though it is easier to attend meetings without needing to travel, video meetings can be exhausting, particularly for people with sensory disabilities and there is a lack of opportunity to make genuine social contact.

As we slowly come out of lockdown, what do you see as the most pressing inclusive design/access issues that we’ll face?

I think the main changes we’ll see will be in working patterns and accessibility of the workplace, along with staggered peak travel times on public transport and high costs. These could be a benefit or a hindrance, depending on how they are managed.

There will also be more competition in a reduced employment pool and fewer employment opportunities for disabled people.

We are yet to really know what effect this pandemic has had on the UK, but I’m sure there will be a much greater need for accessible housing. There is already a severe lack of accessible homes and I fear we will not be in a good place to provide suitable living for all those that need it after COVID-19.

If you could make one law today regarding inclusive design and accessibility what would it be?

I think it may be more of a case of making our existing legislations have more teeth rather than making new laws.

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