• Mark Palmer

Accessibility is not an optional extra

“Do you want fries with that?”

“Would you like 2 years insurance for that item?”

“Add 4GB a month for £3.99”

We live in a world of extras, add-ons, and options menus.

In many ways, this is a good thing. Setting aside that many of these are driven in part at least by a desire to increase sales, we do get more choice and it is easier to tailor things we buy to meet our needs or desires more closely.

Sometimes this goes to absurd lengths. At one time the makers of the Mini car claimed that there were 10 million different combinations of colours and trims alone before you even started considering different engines, brakes etc. Where do you begin with that?!

But some things simply cannot or should not be add-ons. They are a core function and should be considered at the beginning not as an extra at the end.

Recently I went with my wife when she bought some new glasses. There was an extensive range of options available, but even before she chose the frames that she liked the look of, the core part of the process was having her eyes tested and coming up with the prescription for the lenses that would give her the best possible vision. If this step had been omitted or been carried out incorrectly, it would not matter what designer frames the lenses were in and whether they were tinted, scratch-proof, varifocal or anything else – she would not have been able to see properly, and the core function of the glasses would not be met.

The concept of identifying core functions and starting with those should not be a difficult one and is managed quite successfully in many areas of life. You may be able to get your Mini in 10 million colour combinations, but they will all come with an engine and wheels!

Yet one area where this seems to fall is building diversity and accessibility into new designs and services of all kinds. Buildings are designed to look nice and to house necessary equipment, but then accessibility and usability for the people who will need to work there or visit are often considered only right at the end of the process, as an add-on. This seems to apply to services as well as tangible things like buildings too – services are designed to meet the needs of “normal” or “able” people (or even those providing them), and then adjustments made for others.

But ultimately almost everything is designed for people, so surely the needs of people should be a core function, not an optional add-on? If you start designing a service, product or building with what those who will use it actually need, it is much easier to ensure that all their requirements are met. Great progress has been made in ensuring that new public buildings have disabled access built-in – regulations require doorways to be a certain width, ramps provided as an alternative to stairs and so on. It is much easier to equip new buildings in this way than to retrofit old ones – try visiting a castle or stately home with someone with mobility issues if you don’t believe me!

As usual, however, the needs of those with hidden needs are being left way behind. Modern offices, for example, are designed to meet the mantras of light and airy, versatile and collaborative, meaning that they are generally large, open-plan spaces that encourage people to have impromptu meetings and chats just about anywhere and look beautiful in photos with all that light from huge windows being reflected off bright surfaces.

I am sure that some people love these designs, and those that design them are immensely proud of them. The problem is, they may be virtually unusable for people with sensory issues, such as hypersensitivity to sound or light. Options for these users are then tried to be shoehorned into the finished design, but it is too late. The fundamental needs of these people cannot be considered as a bolt-on at the end – the adjustments that some of us need are just not possible in the core design adopted.

Surely the start of the design of anything new should have accessibility and accommodation of diversity as a core function? If some of the people it is designed for cannot use it, then it is not fit for its purpose. It is the glasses with the wrong prescription for the lenses or the car that looks beautiful but has no engine or wheels.

Consider accessibility and diversity needs at the start of a project, including speaking to potential users about what they need and find hard. The solutions are often not that difficult to find, indeed they may also be of benefit to other users – doesn’t everyone who works in an office want at least the option of a quiet space some of the time?

We all have unique needs, and we all deserve to have them carefully considered. Accessibility is not an optional extra, it is a core function and must be treated as such.

Mark Palmer is a freelance writer specialising in mental health, autism and neurodiversity. He be contacted through his website www.markpalmerwriter.co.uk, by email at mark@markpalmerwriter.co.uk, on LinkedIn and on twitter @MarkPWriter.