WHAT DOES IT REALLY MEAN?
Persons with disabilities encompasses a vast, diverse number of people who all have needs that vary from one person to another. Not one person with disabilities has the exact same need or wants of life as another because each person’s disability affects them in different ways – even if the disability is medically the same. However, it is not uncommon to see or hear the phrase “persons with disabilities” being used as a vague, umbrella term to refer to anyone who has a different physical or cognitive capacity from an able-bodied, neurotypical. The 4 broad categories of disabilities include physical, cognitive, sensory and developmental, or a combination. And these categories can then be further divided into many more subcategories that detail what each disability entails. So, to whom are we referring to when we speak of persons with disabilities?
Figure 1: Diagram of non-exhaustive list of different types of disabilities
Ensuring their needs are met
Evidently, “persons with disabilities” loses all meaning when used as an umbrella term because the nuances of their disability as well as their daily, lived experiences gets lost in vague terminology. Hence, when we say, “designing for persons with disabilities” or “meeting the needs of persons with disabilities”…. Who are we talking about? What are their needs? How do we know these are their needs? The nuances, although we may think them to be tedious, make all the difference if we hope to design spaces that are truly inclusive.
In the industry of architecture and spatial design, we often look to the governing principles of universal design as well as inclusive design to build spaces that are accessible for persons with disabilities. In Singapore, the Building and Construction Authority (BCA) focuses heavily on “developing a user-friendly built environment through promoting the concept of [universal design] for buildings and public places where the young, the old, and persons with disabilities can work, live and play”. While this adopted direction has vastly improved the accessibility of most spaces and buildings in Singapore, a universal design often renders a “one size fits all” design approach to maximise the spaces built for the greatest number of people groups. What this means is that the creation of different designs that can be altered and improved to meet the needs of diverse groups with varying needs is not prioritised.
Impossible if we only do the minimum
This, ultimately, begs the question of how inclusivity in our society for these people groups with needs that vary from mainstream society can be achieved if we are not encouraged to learn about the nuances of their needs and take on the challenge of meeting them.
This is not to say that Singapore does not have examples of buildings and spaces that were built to truly meet diverse needs of different people groups, particularly those with disabilities. The Enabling Village, an initiative by the Ministry of Social and Family Development and SG Enable, has been applauded as a unique integrated community space that combines retail, lifestyle and business and vocational skills training for members of the disabled community, with both physical and cognitive impairments, in an all-accessible public space.
“The Enabling Village is an inclusive community space. Home to several social businesses and community services, we want to build a more inclusive society. With a special focus on training and employment of persons with disabilities, this is where we build dreams and enable lives.”
(found on the Enabling Village page, About Us)
Inclusivity in existing spaces
However, the term “unique”, which is often used to describe The Enabling Village, reveals a more serious, sobering reality: these spaces that truly include our persons with varying disabilities are limited and even non-existent in most neighbourhoods in Singapore. Whose responsibility is it to bring the “all-inclusive design” elements featured in The Enabling Village out into the rest of the pre-existing spaces and buildings in Singapore? Who is currently advocating for it and who should start advocating for it?
It is easy to invalidate the idea of making multiple various designs or perhaps even custom designs with the excuse of, “We cannot meet everyone’s needs” or “as long as the space is accessible to most people, that’s good enough”. But what about the people groups who fall outside of this “most”? We can’t ignore their needs just because they do not form the majority. And just because we cannot meet everyone’s needs, does that mean we do not at least try?
“Persons with disabilities” needs to become more than a mere umbrella term that refers to a faceless mass. We need to start seeing them for who they are: valuable members of our society with needs that are different but not any less important to meet. Only when we start to advocate for new and existing spaces to be inclusive for persons with disabilities, then can we integrate as a community.
Anyone can be an advocate
Here at WeCreate Studio, we firmly believe in community-centred design – where we partner with different people groups in our society to understand their needs, gain the insights before designing with them, for them, and that anyone can be a co-designer. We hope to see more people step up to create spaces that go beyond just meeting accessibility design codes but prioritise building spaces with specific solutions to meet specific needs.
Have an idea or project in mind? Chat with us, we would love to hear from you.