UD better shot of conference roomDelegates from Australia and overseas headed to Sydney for the inaugural Australian Universal Design Conference.  Here are some highlights from an event that produced lively discussion and support for establishing a Centre for Universal Design in Australia.

The conference program included two keynote addresses and 28 presentations covering topics as diverse as house and home, tourism, transport, children, wellbeing and inclusive practice.

In his keynote address, Dr Gerald Craddock, chief officer at the Centre for Excellence in Universal Design in Ireland spoke passionately about the rights of people with disability. He said Universal Design assumes “every person will experience barriers, reduced functioning, some form of disability – temporary or permanent – at some stage in their life. And, nothing could be achieved without government, academia, industry and citizens collaborating to drive structural changes far beyond the scope that any one organisation could achieve on its own.

“Universal Design is the design and composition of an environment that can be accessed, understood and used to the greatest extent possible by all people regardless of their age, size, ability or disability.”

Speaking to Freedom2Live at the conclusion of the conference Craddock believes it is time for all stakeholders to come to the party. He qualifies this by advising “it is all about being transparent in what you want to do, having a clear vision of what is to be done, having the resources and getting key constituents around the table and across government departments at the highest level.”

Craddock said in order that the right decisions are made it was imperative that discussion comes down to ‘yes we want this or no we don’t want that,’ rather than having ideas tossed around and discussed and re-discussed.  “The time is now and as Ghandi said you have to follow this with apostolic zeal otherwise it won’t happen.”

The solution is in accepting that design is the core element in creating Universal Design. “The problem with traditional design is it tends to follow an exclusive or fashionable path but designing for people is very different.   Many modern designers might see their design as a piece of sculpture not as a design that is going to be used.  “It might be a masterpiece but it has to be practical and often practicalities are forgotten in modern design.”

And who are the leaders in Universal Design?   According to Craddock it is the Norwegians who come with a clear mandate and clear vision, while from an industry perspective Japan leads the way.  “Japan is really engaged and examples of this are global conglomerates like Toyota and Sony. We talk about simplicity in good design with a product that is easy to use and it has a nice feel or touch and is well presented.  You use it without thinking and that is how buildings should be.”

There seems to be a cautionary note in some quarters too when it comes to using the word ‘disability’ and Craddock agrees. “We are talking about great design and we must not forget that is our calling card when it comes to Universal Design. When you approach industry keep in mind what you are selling and that is Universal Design. Once you have established this then you move to disability.”

The NSW Minister for Disability, John Ajaka said the conference addressed what he believes is an important factor in the ageing portfolio – Universal Design.  “Designing towns, products or services that can be easily accessed by all people, without the need for adaption or specialised design is sometimes not given when planning or building, especially when many may not be aware of how fast our ageing population is growing.”  He said an example of this was when some shopping centre designers and architects don’t consider the need for zimmer frame accessibility – a tool that is used by thousands of people with disability.

“With more and more seniors in the community the question is why are we not encouraging healthy living by accommodating their mobility“?  This is just common sense to everyone in this room who are aware of our ageing population but what about outside these doors?  What are we doing to make Universal Design for seniors a reality”?

One thing Minister Ajaka would like to see it is giving people with disability choice and control earlier. “We anticipate with the NDIS which is expected to be implemented by 2018 and the individual funding coming from the NDIS we can expect this will happen.”  He also believes there should be more emphasis on early intervention.  He told F2L whether this starts at one month of age or three years:  “because research clearly shows the earlier we start, then the advantages, the leaps and bounds are just so much greater than starting later.”

The chair of the NSW Ministerial Advisory Committee on Ageing, Kathryn Greiner, talked about creating more ‘living’ communities, describing it as a policy priority for NSW. “Public policy is only good policy when it assists all member of the community and does not play to a sectoral cohort. Design is only good design if it universally benefits all people in the community,” she said. Engaging with the private sector was critical – “there is no point in talking to ourselves – we know about it. The architects, planners and government who are here today are already on the bus now we need the private sector on board.”

Disability Discrimination Commissioner, Susan Ryan, expressed her enthusiasm in the push to set up a centre for Universal Design in Australia by announcing she would be keen to work with anyone who has some strategies on organising it.. “We might have packages of legislation and policies in this area along with national regulations on accessibility in buildings and so forth but we don’t yet have a way of implementing Universal Design,” Ryan said. “There is little evidence of Universal Design in our suburbs, our workplaces, schools or university campuses. You might see it from time-to-time but not throughout our society.”

She thinks there is a strong case for Universal Design when you look at the big social reforms currently underway. “Let’s start with the NDIS which is a fundamental step forward in terms of recognising the human rights of people with disability and the appropriate supports in place that for the first time recognise the right for people to choose.  This scheme can be part of Universal Design.”

Another speaker, Helen Larkin, senior lecturer at Deakin University believes there should be more input from an undergraduate level where she noted there was not much participation. Her view is that architects and occupational therapists should be working together more closely. “One design does not fit all. It has to be usable and there is a constant beef between function and aesthetics and form and function.  We have to respect diversity in universal design but it cannot be achieved by laws and regulations alone,” she said. Deakin University has just appointed a new Chair of Disability Studies.

Hearing advisor at Better Hearing Australia (Victoria), Carol Wilkinson, said that hearing is often overlooked in Universal Design, and that the risk of falls increases significantly with hearing loss and unattended hearing loss. “On average it takes between 6 and 10 years before any action is taken to address hearing problems.”

Joanne Quinn, a researcher with the University of NSW, spoke about improved safety for an ageing population choosing to stay in their homes. She said safety was an issue here. Safety features on appliances were only available on premium products and there is also the need for a low frequency smoke alarm. “High frequency alarms don’t wake children or those on medications.”

Tourism was on the agenda too with economist Bill Forrester sharing some interesting statistics on why we should be making tourism more accessible for everyone in the community. He said 88 per cent of people take a trip at least once a year and the percentage of those with disability taking a yearly trip was – wait for it –  87 per cent.  “One-third of the world’s population have a connection with disability,” he said. “This is a valuable market but it has to be incorporated into normal travel marketing so you should throw away the disability action plan.”

The conference was hosted by COTA NSW and organised by Interpoint Events.