Possibly the most depressing aspect of this paper (Heylighen and Herssens, 2014) is that it is so recent. It points out that “… recent developments towards… inclusive design… seem very promising… limited as their uptake… may be so far...” (p 329). One has to wonder what it will take to see progress.
One approach suggested here is to include the reactions of blind people to aspects of architecture and urban planning in order to “..question architects’ designerly ways of knowing space and to enrich it with blind…persons’… ways of knowing space...” (p.327). Having spend time with a blind person, an architecture student’s reaction was “…her description of architecture is so much different to ours” (p.326) (emphasis mine).
Although it was critical of studies which refused to include space-users’ feedback on aspects of urban design, no mention was made of the fact that at all times, disabled persons were always other than the designers. The idea of a blind (or otherwise disabled) designer seemed unimaginable. That this is so, is presumably because it is rare and if it is so, design students are likely taught by the able bodied. Hence lack of understanding of what disability means persists, as does un-inclusive design. That a discipline does not contain a wide spectrum of people can also fix the idea that it is only possible for a narrow range of people to practice it; this could have a knock-on effect on recruitment into academic programmes, and the curriculum, cementing the problem.
Whilst society is so imbalanced, it is impossible to design inclusively. It relies too much of the largess of the abled to include others or else increasing amounts of legislation to force change; including disabled people in focus groups is the least that can be done and does nothing to fix the underlying issue of who exercises power in design choices. Rather like antiracism, it’s not enough not to be actively prejudiced against disabled people. One needs to be working to dismantle disabling structures, that mean that groups with power over design include people from a greater range of lived experiences.
User testing can only only take us so far. A design team with limited experience will never be able to fully address society’s design needs as it cannot know them.
Heylighen, A. and Herssens, J. (2014) ‘Designerly Ways of Not Knowing: What Designers Can Learn about Space from People Who are Blind’, Journal of Urban Design, 19(3), pp. 317–332.