Tuesday, 18 September 2012

Intelligent design

I've been reading up on universal design lately.  That's the practice of creating spaces - be they homes, workplaces, or public spaces - that are accessible to everyone, regardless of their level of mobility and ability.

It all started the first time I saw oversized light switches, designed to be usable if you have arthritis or limited motor control of your hands.  In the last few years they've gone from being a thing you looked at twice when visiting someone in a nursing home to something commonplace the last cheap country motel I stayed in had them.  And why not?  They're aesthetically no different from any other light switch (I actually think they're a more logical design, making better use of all the available space) and they're easier to use.  This isn't just a boon for those with disability: it also means if you've got an armful of stuff or your hands are covered in paint or dirt, you can turn the lights on with your elbow.

Accessible interior design also rated a mention on Apartment Therapy.  I love how they've described the concept: "Universal design doesn't so much refer to adding a bunch of wheelchair ramps to existing structures. It touches on the idea of designing spaces that have wide accessibility built right in - unseen and seamless with the beautiful design elements."

They featured a photo of this, or something very like it: a kitchen tap that turns on and off by touch, rather than a screw or twist action.  Apparently the accessibility test is that an able-handed person should be able to operate it with their hand in a closed fist.  That thing on the right, by the way, that looks like some sort of metallic kiwifruit ray gun, is a 'side sprayer' which is apparently for rinsing things and filling up jugs with minimal splashage.  I think in my hands it'd be for randomly shooting water all over the kitchen, though.

I personally have a detachable bathroom grab-rail, which I bought back when I lived in a house with an alarmingly high step up into the shower.  The only reason I don't use it at the moment is I'm in a less-than-brand-new rental, and there's so much paint peeling off the bathroom walls I can't get the suction cups to stick.

But a lot of talk about universal design does tend to lean heavily towards the obvious physical disabilities.  So, here are some tips of my own for universal design, mostly in regards to shops and public spaces, from an Aspie perspective:

Kill the 'mood' or 'background' music.  You might think it adds to the ambience, but I can't count how many shops I've walked out of with my wallet firmly closed because the music was making my ears bleed.  Office Works is a particularly bad offender because they have different music playing in different parts of the store. (Why?  Really specific APRA licencing?  Do people browsing laptops need different stimulation from those buying envelopes?)  If I'm in an aisle where I can hear two speakers playing two different songs, hello sensory overload, and goodbye customer.

It's not just wheelchair users who need extra space.  Because my body awareness is shady, I don't always know exactly where my limbs are and it's pretty easy for me to collide with things.  So if the shop is absolutely jam packed with stuff, with narrow, winding passageways that you have to walk through sideways (new age stores seem to be particularly prone to this, I've noticed) I'm going to feel really uncomfortable and probably bail as fast as I can.  There's also a fair likelihood I'll knock something over - either a book, a whole rack of clothes, or another customer.

Speaking of jam packed shops, having too much visual clutter bewilders me.  I'm a bit like a vampire stuck counting grains of rice - I get 'stuck' trying to process everything I'm seeing and get to a point where I just can't make sense of it.

If there's a certain path through the space that users are supposed to take (like the famous Ikea 'maze') make that path clear.  There's nothing wrong with a 'start here' or 'no entry' sign to make it explicit.  Because I can't necessarily take cues from other people as quickly as would be ideal, and I do sometimes miss implicit direction, what may be clear to you may be completely invisible to me.  So, stop with the death glares because I'm walking the 'wrong' way through your shop, and just put up a sodding sign already.

Quiet spaces are an awesome idea.  I really wish shopping centres had the occasional shop that was just left an empty space with darkish neutral walls and gentle lighting, some comfy chairs, no music, and maybe a plant or two and some magazines.  The only time I've seen spaces like this is when there's a shop they can't rent, so they stick some chairs in the harsh, brightly lit space with its undercoat-white walls, which isn't at all conducive to settling the mind.  They're also usually full of teenagers talking really loudly, but that's not the kids' fault - there's nowhere else for them to go, either.  It'd also be great to see spaces like this every so often at large flea market type affairs - I'm thinking the Byron Bay and Eumundi markets - so you could stop and have a defrag in an empty stall space if you're getting overwhelmed.  While there are tables and chairs and things, they're usually full of people eating (because that's what tables and chairs are for) and also sometimes quite a distance from the market itself, which means you have to navigate out of the stalls and find a seat while in the beginnings of a meltdown.  Erk.

Handrails are awesome for balance issues, but keep them clean.  Toowoomba has the most disgusting handrails I've ever seen.  The ones outside the big shopping centre in the middle of the CBD were covered in used chewing gum and other unidentifiable but possibly biological material, and the ones on the building I worked in were covered in sharp, flaking paint and rust.  Obviously they were just there for the sake of disability lip service, and nobody had considered actually using them.

Photo credits and where-can-I-get-it info:
Oversized light switch from Independent Living Centre NSW which has a massive list of stuff to make life easier.
Touch-operated tap with side sprayer from Delta Faucet.  No, it's not cheap.