Enabling and disabling environments with SDA

How do you experience and make sense of the designed environment as you go about your daily life?  The question underpinned our activities with members of the Bits and Pieces group at Southwark Disablement Association (SDA) on Friday 14th March 2014. Funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC), the daylong workshop offered a collaborative and friendly arena to try out different methods and tools for understanding and representing disabled peoples’ experiences of the designed environment. Through a series of activities, we invited the group to show us places in the local area that are significant to them, from streets and pavements to buildings, public spaces and transportation, and to tell us about their experiences of inclusion and exclusion therein.

The day began with a participatory mapping exercise, through which we began to explore meaningful places and to highlight things that facilitate or impede movement and mobility, from the position of bus stops to the provision of toilets. We then introduced ways of recording these experiences, from photography to sound recordings and video. Each method or tool was discussed as a means to think about, and illustrate, what makes enabling and disabling environments. The following extracts, written by the workshop team, offer a reflection on and insight into the day as it unfolded. We would like to thank the Bits and Pieces group and the SDA staff for inviting us to the Centre and for participating so enthusiastically in the workshop.

Photographing the street environment by Rob Imrie

the street Alyson Car blocking a curb cut curb cut

Trying to get around the street environment, and using buildings and transport, can be a challenge to all of us. There are lots of things that can get in the way, or make it difficult to gain access to places we want to go to. Using street photography as a way of drawing attention to design features that we think work well for us and those that we think are inappropriate and make life harder, we explored the street environment around the Centre.

These four photographs, featuring Alyson, illustrate the common problem of a lack of joined up thinking and design by those charged with implementing the redesign of streetscapes. This street was re-designed three years ago, as part of a programme of new housing development that included building a new Centre for the SDA. However, the implementation of the street’s design, in relation to ease of use by people with mobility impairments, and especially individuals dependent upon the use of a wheelchair, leaves a lot to be desired. As the photographs show, the dropped kerbs are built into car parking bays that enable a vehicle to block the route way of users. Alyson drew attention to the fact that when you come off one of the paths onto the road there is no corresponding kerb cut to take you up the other side, leaving no alternative than to navigate along the road and be exposed to traffic. She also found the kerb cut gradients too steep to be able to self propel up them and was left dependent on some one to push her up onto the pavement, hardly a scenario for independent living.

It appears that the streets around the SDA have been re-designed with less than due attention to the needs of those who use the Centre itself. The Centre is very well designed and the issue is not one of getting in and out of its front door, but rather how the environment beyond it can be joined up to encourage a continuity of movement and mobility so that people do not have to be dependent on others to enable them to get from place to place. The lack of attention to basic design details has more or less rendered this impossible for some people in the immediate environs just south of the SDA Centre.

The rhythms of Walworth Road by Kim Kullman

There are five of us moving on the pavement alongside the busy Walworth Road on a sunny spring afternoon. We have equipped ourselves with four cameras, including one headcam, two handheld cameras and one mini-cam attached to the handlebars of a tricycle. Before setting out on our journey, we have decided to use our cameras to engage with the rhythms of Walworth Road, that is, the diverse ways in which our group and the others around us are moving.

It turns out that most of us know the area very well, some having lived near Walworth Road in the past, others living here currently. Although this is familiar territory, the presence of the cameras seems to change our relationship to the place and its people, bringing out qualities and possibilities that we have rarely paused to consider before. One good example is the way Angus films the different surfaces of the pavement we are moving along, or the way Colin skillfully uses his camera to engage with everything and everyone moving past us on the street: cars, buggies, buses, dogs, cyclists, old people, young people.

We decide to head towards the nearby East Street Market. Dylan, who wears the wide-angle headcam, is turning his head left and right to capture the people and vehicles that we encounter along the way, creating a lively panorama of the street as we approach the market. Dylan says that he visits the market regularly, although as a wheelchair user he avoids Tuesdays, when the area is too crowded for him to be able to move comfortably. When we enter the market, the whole atmosphere around us seems to change, and the traffic noise from Walworth Road recedes as we are enveloped by the patchwork of sounds, smells and sights that characterises the place at this particular time of the day.

We have attached a mini-cam to the handlebars of the tricycle of Isayas, and, as he moves between the narrow gaps between the stalls and customers, the camera traces his fluid maneuvering. While there is considerably less space than on the pavement, people demonstrate a certain flexibility and smoothness in the way they negotiate this crowded space, giving room to each other as they pass by. Colin stops to chat with an old friend, and Dylan engages with one of the market stallholders, ending up buying a new leather cover for his iPad. All of us seem to enjoy this space. At least this is the impression one gets when speaking with Colin, Angus, Dylan and Isayas, who praise the market and the surrounding area, saying that they like its diversity. It is with these thoughts in mind, then, that we decide to return, through the hubbub of Walworth Road, back to the Association.

Feeling the park by Charlotte Bates

park pothole gravel grass

We’re heading to Burgess Park. You can see it from our meeting point just outside the Association – it is not much more than 200 feet away, with a zebra crossing to help us navigate the light flow of traffic and take us across the road to the park entrance. Our mobilities are diverse, and our means of moving around include a combination of wheelchairs, walking sticks, and bodies of different capabilities. I move among the group, sometimes pushing a wheelchair and bending forward to talk with Linda or Derek. As we move along, I begin to realise that the park is not as close at it first appeared. It is not the distance that I have underestimated, but the time and effort it takes to get there. Still, the warmth of the sun is inviting and the feeling among the group is convivial. We cross the road, and the people in wheelchairs grimace as the tactile paving reverberates through their bodies. David pushes a wheelchair off-road and onto the rough grass, amiably teasing Derek about the possibilities of wheelchair travel while reminding the group of the purpose of this outing, which is more than social. Our task is to explore how the seemingly mundane textures and surfaces of the local environment feel, and how they shape our experiences and alter the routes we choose to take.

The park offers a range of surfaces for us to experience, from gravel and grit to smooth and rough grass, but for the most part we choose not to venture off the concrete path, which guides us to a seating area that offers a stopping point for those already weary. It becomes clear that we will not be going any further – although sunny, it is still a little cold and we need to preserve enough energy for the return journey. Besides, just beyond the concrete path the surface changes to a gritted area, which seems uninviting. As we sit, rest, and chat, it becomes apparent that this is new territory. The park is unfamiliar to most of the group, and there are clear but invisible barriers all around us. Sensing the environment differently through our individual bodies, which are more or less sensitive to the textures of the world around us, we begin our return, back down the concrete path, over the tactile paving, across the road, and along the pavement to the Association, carefully negotiating litter, potholes, cracks, and crevices, while sharing the stories of our lives as we go.

Mapping the ‘other’ senses by Alex Rhys-Taylor

With the aim of moving through towards Burgess Park and onto the high street, six variously disabled participants and I left the SDA. My intention was to prompt reflection on participants’ ambient sensory experiences of space: the way slopes on pavements necessitate efforts to balance, the way different surface textures prompt pain and offer relief. Before getting more than 2 metres from the front door of the Centre I stop and pause, note-pad in hand, to explain exactly what it is I would like the participants to be sensitive to:

“So I want you to think about your sense of balance, any internal feelings of pain or relief that a particular space might evoke and…”

Without missing a beat one participant responds “Can we do this somewhere in the sunshine? We’re standing in the shadow and I left my coat inside.”

From the front of the Centre we moved out of the day-long shadows cast in the canyon between new high density housing blocks towards the park. Predictable obstacles get in the way. A car is parked over an access point in the pavement designed for wheel chairs and baby strollers. It isn’t the car’s fault. White lines that mark the parking space, for residents of the new housing development, cut right across the pavement access point. So we take a diversion down a side street. A zebra crossing is commended by participants for its flat entry and exit points, gravelly paths in the park are critiqued for sending tremors of pain up the back of a spinal injury sufferer. Those that wanted to use the park at night highlight a paucity of lights. Others point to the pleasurable soundscape of the park. It is often difficult, as one wheelchair-bound participant pointed out, to hold a conversation with an able bodied person for the distance between each other’s ears and mouths. Noisy high streets make it practically impossible to converse. The ambient hub-bub of the park however, facilitates communication.

As we move through the park, only 250 meters from where we set off, participants start dropping off. Not because of an impaired sense of balance, or even acute pain, but simply fatigue. A recovering stroke victim is the first, stopping at an invisible barrier that he is simply  too exhausted to move beyond. After about 45 minutes of ambling through the park and surrounding streets, pointing out inaccessible shops, poorly marked junctions and badly kept pavements, I have just three participants left; one in a motorized wheel chair, another without a motor with her friend pushing her. I’m warming up, in full swing even, having, I thought achieved some degree of empathetic understanding. I’m enthusiastically pointing out things that might cause difficulties “What about this? Or this?”. Then my participant in a wheelchair says something. I can’t hear her because of the traffic. Her assistant turns to me and says, slowly and clearly as though I might have impaired hearing. “You see, she’s cold. It isn’t like for you and me. She’s doesn’t warm up moving around”. I look down and see the goosebumps on the top of her arms. We head back to the Centre.

I had set out to gauge the importance of ‘the other senses’, mainly introspective senses, to disabled bodies in the urban environment. Importantly, the exercise was bookended with references to thermo-sensitivity. Of all the sensory capacities that able-bodied people take for granted, this strikes me as one of the very least thought about. Even when environments neglect to cater to normal ‘heat sensitivity’ we nudge a thermostat or grab an extra layer without thinking twice. Yet for those with impaired movement, circulation and nerve damage, an environment’s inability to cater to their thermo-sensitivity, is commonplace. We survived bumpy pavements, obstructive cars and badly marked junctions. It was, however, a largely unexpected lack of warmth that ended the exercise. Only it shouldn’t have been unexpected. It was the first thing that anyone pointed out.