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New RIBA book asks whether we are achieving inclusive design

Tourism for All asked Julie Fleck, author of the new RIBA book on inclusive design, about her views on current best practice and what more needs to be done

Julie Fleck

When the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) asked me to write a book about inclusive design it was an opportunity to celebrate what we have achieved in the last 30 years.

We have made huge progress since the 1980s when access for disabled people first became a town planning matter, and the Building Regulations first required the provision of access to buildings for disabled people (Approved Document M). The introduction of anti-discrimination legislation (the Disability Discrimination Act in 1995 which was absorbed into the Equality Act in 2010); improved building regulations (Part M now applies to new housing as well as commercial premises albeit on an optional basis triggered by planning policy); and of course the recently revised very comprehensive technical standard British Standard BS 8300:2018; have all had a huge impact on the accessibility of our built environment.

But the book was also an opportunity to look at why we have still not achieved an inclusive environment and to stress the urgent need to continue to challenge our perceptions, attitudes and behaviours. We know from the experience of disabled people that we cannot be complacent. If we are complacent, we will compromise and if we compromise, we will exclude and if we exclude, we continue to discriminate. So, I celebrate in my book what we have achieved so far, while being clear that we have not got there yet.

Inclusive design - the beginnings

I start the book with brief look at how we moved from designing for ‘special needs’ to the development and adoption of the principles of inclusive design and how one local authority responded to the changing legislation and regulations. The Corporation of London employed its first access officer in 1988 and has been working to improve accessibility in the Square Mile ever since - demonstrating how leadership at a political and senior officer level can have real impact on the accessibility of a place.

The book also gave me the opportunity to record and celebrate the hard work that so many people put into making inclusive design an integral and essential part of the London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games. Delivering the ‘most accessible games ever’ was an amazing and very collaborative time and has left a permanent legacy in the accessible sports venues, the landscaped park and the new very inclusive neighbourhoods being built in an around Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park in East London today.

As the book was being published by RIBA, I was asked to include case studies - plans and photographs that illustrate good inclusive design. But it is still a real challenge to find a truly accessible building and even the good ones have some elements that could be better. So, in the case study chapter I look at a wide variety of buildings where access has been achieved despite seeming impossible initially - from a Roman temple, a medieval walled City, a Wren Cathedral, a small holiday cottage, to a wheelchair accessible beach hut. I also look at common design pitfalls where attention to detail can make a huge difference to the enjoyment and usability of a building, place or space.

Understanding 'the social model' helps us get it right

However, designing an inclusive environment is not just about getting the technical dimensions right, it is in fact our own attitude and our own behaviour that is key to delivering an inclusive environment. Legislation can only go so far - if we do not ‘get it’ – and ‘the social model of disability’ helps to explain what ‘it’ is - then we will continue to build and maintain barriers in the environment and we will continue to deny disabled and older people the same rights and opportunities as non-disabled people.

A recent celebration of the life and work of Mike Oliver, the disabled academic who articulated ‘the social model of disability’, was a reminder of how all built environment professionals and all service providers should be familiar with and using this essential tool. By recognising that impairment, ill health and old age are part of the normal human condition, which we will all experience at some point in our lives, Mike challenged the individual medical model which created a ‘them and us approach’ and instead made us concentrate on changing society - changing the environment, changing our attitude and changing our behaviours rather than trying to make disabled people hide their impairments and ‘fit in’.

The last two chapters of my book look at how our legislation, government policy and regulations need to improve and how our own understanding of disability discrimination and the continuing struggle for rights not charity is essential to the creation of an inclusive environment.

I hope the book is helpful, not just to architects and architecture students but to all built environment professionals and to all service providers in the tourism industry and beyond. I hope it stimulates a further shift in our approach so that inclusive design really does become business as usual for all of us.

Julie Fleck

Author of Are you an inclusive designer? RIBA, October 2019

Copies of the book can be purchased from the RIBA Bookshop https://www.ribabookshops.com/item/are-you-an-inclusive-designer/40509/

Examples of attractions and destinations with excellent inclusive design can be found on TfA's Travel Planner website.


Julie Fleck OBE, MRTPI (Rtd) is a Strategic Access and Inclusive Design Adviser. Her work on various national access committees, and as a member of British Standard Institution’s B/559 Committee, has helped to improve national planning policy and the building regulations.

As the Principal Access and Inclusive Design Adviser at the Greater London Authority Julie developed the 2004 and 2008 London Plan policies on inclusive design and accessible housing and contributed to the development of the London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games' award-winning Inclusive Design Strategy and Standards.

She was then seconded to the Office for Disability Issues as the Project Lead for the Government's Paralympic Legacy BEPE Project (the Built Environment Professional Education Project), aimed at stimulating a systematic change in how built environment professionals are taught inclusive design. She is a Design Council Built Environment Expert, and in 2004 was awarded the OBE for services to disabled people.

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