It is, in many ways, quizzical that when it comes to architecture and design we don’t give more thought to designing for disability or aged care - considering that many of us are likely to encounter disability in our lives, and we will all grow old. Emeritus Professor Catherine Bridge is one of Australia's eminent experts on housing solutions for older people, whose housing research portfolio includes research on housing and care; housing and health; older people and sustainability; accessibility of the built environment and extensive research on home modification interventions.
“Disability in Australia can be hard to quantify because it’s a relational concept, and a social construct,” says Catherine. “So when we're talking about the national census, we're talking about 4.4 million Australians, or one in five, who self-identified as disabled. But if we’re talking about the National Disability Insurance Scheme, we're only talking about people with a profound or severe disability - a good deal fewer people.”
Australia has recently had a difficult conversation with itself over how we provide for the more vulnerable members of our society - with results that were, at times, confronting. “As we've seen with the Royal Commission, there are a number of shortcomings in our current approaches, and I guess one of the problems is discrimination has been evident in our built infrastructure and in services. And that's been compounded, by people with disabilities experiencing not just problems with access in the built environment, but also poverty as a result of being unable to be employed or access facilities like health facilities and doctors appropriately.”
There is currently a move towards the creation of more accessible spaces, but progress is slow. And while architects and designers are receptive to making more accessible designs the norm, the reality is still a way off.
“Architects currently think about accessibility mostly in regard to compliance with minimum standards, as set out by the Building Code of Australia, or the Australian Access and Inclusion standards. But you know, those standards are part of about 7200 standards, which makes it a very complex activity. So unless the client wants a really bespoke design, then it requires, you know, a very committed designer to want to deliver something that goes above and beyond,” says Catherine.
“But I think the biggest misconception is that compliance with the minimum standards accommodates people with disabilities. People are usually horrified when I tell them that we haven't ever collected any Australian data about older people to inform Australian standards, and that the data we do have is now quite old and was collected from people in an institution,” she adds.
One of the parts of building design in which lack of accessibility is felt the most is bathroom design. “Bathroom design hasn't changed very much since the widespread adoption of innovations in home plumbing, around the late 18th century,” explains Catherine. “And because of the need for water containment and sanitation, innovations since then have mostly been about materials that are waterproof and easy to keep clean. But those materials are also generally cold, which makes them a risk for hypothermia. And of course, risk of death or injury, from slips, trips and falls.”
Catherine is unequivocal about the fact that the solution to this issue is better design, and the earlier consideration of accessibility in the design process. “Smarter design, which is designed to conduct to people rather than people adapting to the design, is going to make a big difference.” says Catherine. “And we need to think about design, not just as a set of isolated objects, but as a whole composition. It needs to be thought of as the core of the process, not an add on. And I think it's about understanding humans as variable, variable in shape and height and size, and variable in abilities over time.”
Catherine has conducted and published significant research in this space, including “Bathrooms and Older People” in partnership with Caroma. But she sees there is still a long way to go before accessible design is truly normalised within our built environments. “I think that this is something that, you know, many people can contribute to, and which I would like to see being much more explored and better funded,” she says.
But despite the ongoing journey, Catherine is positive about the road ahead. “I think it takes a commitment by society, not to leave people behind. And I think it's a mark of a civilised society that we allow people to be the best that they can be. I don't think anyone aspires to be less than, and all people with disabilities aspire to be recognised for what they can do, not for what they can't do - and I look forward to seeing that reflected across our society.”
Listen to this episode here.
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