Interview

Volume 3 Issue 12 - June 15, 2005

Universal Design is the basis of accessibility: Prof. Abir Mullick

"We might find it much more reasonable, and possible to go toward universal design and skip this whole idea of accessibility, because Universal Design is the basis of accessibility” says Prof. Abir Mullick, Centre for Inclusive Design & Environmental Access, University at Buffalo, in conversation with Chitra S. Shankar

Picture of participants in the dharna

1. How would you define Universal Design? And why is the concept of Universal Design so important?

Universal Design is a truly American concept and came from the whole idea of social equity. During World War II, for the first time people in the U.S. started thinking about ways to accommodate a large number of people who where suddenly disabled. It became more prominent during Vietnam War. At first it was collective rehabilitation, but that experiment led to thinking of disabled people as individuals and recognising independence for them for two reasons – one, they could provide revenue and be tax payers, and two, they could lead an independent life without the support of family and other people.

Early on it was about legislation and equal rights and equal access. From that came off other issues like discrimination at jobs and built environment. They realised that dealing with discrimination in a binary fashion was becoming counter productive. For example, in the U.S., they have accessible drinking fountains - one kind of fountain for disabled and another for non disabled people right next to it. This leads to duplication of resources. Again, through design they are being more discriminatory. A majority of disabled people wanted to be part of the larger workforce and there were others who also felt they could benefit from certain kind of accommodation. That is when Universal Design came. Universal Design talks about accommodation for everyone with an inclusive environment - environments that do not really point to single user groups.

2. Would you say Universal Design is significant, especially in the Indian context?

I think it is very significant. I will give one example. Before the cell phone we all depended on landlines, which was never adequate and few people could actually access. So that was an exclusive kind of system. And suddenly cell phones came and it became common. In the west, they first went to landlines with good distribution and network, and then to cell phone. In India we have jumped a complete technology and in doing so we have sort of levelled the play field. In the west they went through the stage of accessibility for people with disabilities and then to Universal Design. But I think in India one can jump that. We might find it much more reasonable, and possible to go toward Universal Design and skip this whole idea about accessibility, because Universal Design is the basis of accessibility.

3. Tell us something about the latest developments in terms of new concepts vis-à-vis access in the U.S, from which we could learn / use in India.

One interesting concept that is coming up in the U.S. is visitability. Visitability is seen as an ordinance, which means neighbourhoods will act in this regard. While people with disabilities living in their homes are accessible, they in turn cannot go to somebody else’s house and are left behind in social interactions. So the ordinance is to adopt the idea that all homes will have all accessible means - no threshold, no steps, and at least one accessible bathroom downstairs. This is a new movement that has really caught on, with even the Congress discussing it.

4. As a consultant to United Nations have you assisted in development of accessibility policies? Could you share your experiences? And in that sense I would like you to comment on the policies in India in this area.

I did some work for United Nations in the Middle East. We were looking at accessibility policies in the region. That was when I realised this whole idea of interdependence. Universal Design does not fit in the way it does in the west. In the Middle East, design is not just that of a wheelchair, but looking at designing one so that the person assisting can handle it better. We were looking at transportation where people could help each other in getting in and out, settlements that have to deal with sensibilities not just of people with disabilities but with people living with them.

As for India, I think the bigger problem is not the lack of information, or lack of laws. But there are two things - one is implementation and the other is accountability. I do not want to use the word policing, but implementation and policing are really most important. I would like to cite the example of Dilli Haat, which I quite like, apart from the pavement. The plan is quite good because it is a very Indianised idea of accessibility, and I think that is the area where we are lacking - interpretation of accessibility in the Indian context.

5. What are the challenges that Universal Designers face (if any)?

It is a constant challenge because we set ourselves up for a very big goal – to be inclusive. And that is not easy. So we are always pushing boundaries, and asking how we can make things more inclusive whether it is at the functional, social, economic, cultural or aesthetic level. Even at the government level design can sometimes become secondary to them because they think it is part of things that are already happening. Back in the U.S. we are accountable to the Congress. So we always keep showing them how our work is benefitting a larger group of users. One can very quickly disappear from the radar. So the challenge is to be visible.

6. India has design houses and design institutes yet design facilities are of low standard for disabled people. Why do you think India is lagging?

This is due to several reasons. One is that design institutions are catering to competing demands. Disability is only one of them. Coupled with competing interests, there is lack of faculty training to actually teach about these components.

The other thing that has happened in the west is legislation and accountability. Let us say somebody meets with an accident. If the court finds out that it is not their fault, but that of the environment, they can go after the environment. So the correction factor happens through legislative means. We do not really have that system here. I am beginning to see that the courts are becoming more active, but it is not enough. The other thing is insurance issue, because a lot of our life style is supported by insurance – health, accident, etc. We do not have that system.

7. In this context, do you think Universal Design education is important? What are the prerequisites for Universal Design education in design curriculum in India?

It is very important. There is a need for this, because, if we believe that Universal Design is an important issue, and if we think of policies and environments being more flexible, which many more people can use, it can be much more cost-effective, and there is less discrimination.

Second, what we have thought about Universal Design in the U.S. is more about civil rights and independence for everyone. But in India it is more interdependence than independence because one has to be inclusive of not just one user group, but also another user group which is supporting that. I think that there is need for some local effort to understand what it means and address it in a way that it suits the Indian situation. What we have done over time is continuing education; we have taught professionals - not only students, but also professionals out there, so that they can go and make the changes.

8. Regarding accessible approach in rural India using rural resources, do you think design needs and modern techniques can be adapted to local resources, skills and materials available?

Yes. In this context I would like to say a bit about National Institute of Design (N.I.D.). It started off as an institution where the founders (American designers) were invited by the Indian government to give them some ideas about what design could do for small industries. They recommended establishing an institution where Indian designers could be trained to think about Indian things. That is how N.I.D. started. But in the early years of N.I.D., mostly European and western designers taught design. So they were just like the western design.

When I was there, I was struck by this idea about ‘appropriate’ technology. That is, how best local resources can be used. I remember looking at harvesting implements such as sickle. I designed some very early harvesting implements that one could stand and use. What I am trying to say here is that it was for the first time that people at N.I.D. went to villages. There is a need for institutes like N.I.D. to go out and look at these local situations, and train the students to look at the same and think of designs that make use of local resources and local technology. There is a way to make technology cheaper and more accessible and more affordable.

9. What difference do you think exists in the approach of India and other countries with regard to Universal Design?

In the U.S. the approach has always been the user. And that has been the driving force for Universal Design. But there the users may be a little more uniform. They have some basic amenities, in other words the infrastructures are better. But here in India, the infrastructure may be different; people may be of a wide range of income groups. The differences between the users are so high that the challenge in India may be that of finding ways to bridge the gap. And this may be even more of a challenge, with people so different economically, socially or educationally. Language is another big issue. In India there are so many different technologies too which is another challenge. In the west everything is dependent on mass manufacturing and there is very little happening on a smaller scale like in India. It is much more uniform, whereas here, it is heterogeneous.

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