Looking ahead

South Africa participated in this year’s 2016 Universal Design Conference in York, UK.

Held from August 21 to 24, the conference’s theme was “Learning from the Past, Designing for the Future”. The South African representation was strong, with a total of five delegates in attendance, offering three presentations and participating in the panel discussion.

In this issue, we review one of the first presentations of the conference, by the Finnish Association of People with Physical Disabilities. We in South Africa tend to assume that countries elsewhere, such as Finland, are more progressive and have implemented Universal Design (UD) principles in all spheres of work and government – and that, by contrast, we are the only ones struggling with the basic implementation of the concept.

The topic of the presentation was, however, particularly interesting because the Finnish people have recently experienced a negative attitude towards UD; the research that they conducted was around the investigation of these attitudes and the possible disadvantages that people see in the promotion of UD.

The research findings indicated, however, that although there was a perceived negative attitude towards UD, 90% of the respondents had a very positive attitude towards the promotion of UD and appreciated its importance. More than 80% of the same respondents also indicated that they see accessibility as forward-thinking and “desirable”, using words such as “good quality” and “nice-looking” as adjectives for UD. The researchers then reviewed media content to investigate where the negative attitudes towards UD possibly stemmed from. Over a six-month period they classified and analysed a sample of 1 099 articles from online media sources. The findings showed a clear misunderstanding of the definition of accessibility in the context of UD. One large media company, for example, defined accessibility as meaning “gigantic” bathrooms, and while that same company admits, in other articles, that accessibility is an important issue, the topic itself is often misunderstood. In the same publication, the writers gave a representative from the construction industry an opportunity to make a case against UD. The substance of his opposition was the cost factor (only really applicable to retrofitting, but it wasn’t stated as such) and his view that the high Finnish standards were “ridiculous”.

We see the same negativity towards UD in SA, which, similarly to Finland, arises out of a lack of understanding. Being at the “bottom” of the globe doesn’t mean we are any further behind any other country in the world. As South Africans we know that we always strive for the best representation of equality, because we have learnt from our past and are designing for our future.

The full conference proceedings can be found at www.iospress.nl/book/universal-design-2016-learning-from-the-past-designing-for-the-future

Universal Design Africa (UDAfrica) sees universal design as a vehicle to create and enhance the functionality of environments, services and products for the widest range of users, recognising the diversity of the human condition. The UDAfrica team aims to create awareness, disseminate information and improve lives.

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