It’s the little things that matter. Consider kerbs. For the majority of us they’re things we ignore (and occasionally trip over). For those with mobility problems they can be obstacles for travelling around a city, at times closing off parts of where they live
It shouldn’t be this way. Towns and cities should be open to all but all too often accessibility isn’t built into where we live or is treated like an afterthought.
This week I took part in a discussion at Socitm’s Share National event, which was devoted to discussing inclusivity. Dubbed ’Accessibility. From Compliance to Confidence’, it explored the issues that 15 per cent of the world’s population faces. I heard of how minor annoyances to the able-bodied like lifts being out of order or built without the hearing or visually impaired in mind are serious issues for a person’s freedom.
But some cities are showing others how simple changes can have a big impact on its citizens. Jönköping in the south of Sweden has installed tactile maps and signage in the town’s library and concert hall. It renovated 120 public playgrounds to improve accessibility. Chester in the UK built tactile pavements, handrails and ramps to make its city walls accessible, no mean feat given they date back 2,000 years in some parts.
Both cities are former winners of the European Union’s Access City awards, which champions accessibility across Europe. More importantly, both cities involved disability groups from the inception of an public project. Chester laudably has had a designated disability officer in place since the early 1990s as well as a forum where disability organisations can challenge architects and developers about access plans.
But it’s important to realise that accessibility isn’t just the likes of kerbs and lifts. Toilets are vital and one of the issues cited during my discussion. All too often cities also forget about so-called invisible disabilities. Breda in the Netherlands - again a former Access City winner - consulted with an organisation for children with autism to build a welcoming play area, to give one example of a city listening.
Technology has a role to play and gives cities more opportunity to aid its citizens. Albuquerque in the United States installed a voice assistant to aid citizen enquiries. But again, innovation has to be built with all of us in mind. Just because a company boasts of something being user-friendly doesn’t mean it is friendly to all users.
Cities showcase the best of diversity but in order to truly thrive they need to be accessible to all. It’s an ongoing project and some that a laudable number of cities have been acknowledging but it’s important the work continues and others learn from them