Are we really designing for inclusion?

At Hames Sharley, we recognise our bias that as a majority able-bodied workforce we instinctively position and create designs from an able-bodied perspective. This does not reflect the diverse population of Australia and the world. Groups frequently considered minorities – like the elderly, migrants, people with disabilities and neurodiversities, and Indigenous and Torres Strait Islander people – are often overlooked in the design process.

‘Disability’ is a broad term that considers permanent disability, temporary disability, and situational disabilities. We need to identify and determine ways in which we can reduce the ‘gaps’ in our work to deliver better outcomes that make a positive impact on the built environment and the communities we serve. We must ask ‘How can we better design to advance inclusion and equity’ and ‘How do we encourage staff and clients to challenge cognitive bias and employ compassion and understanding?’ Our strategic goal is to challenge and ultimately break barriers, understand our unconscious biases, and deliver on inclusive and equitable design in our communities.

Designing with not for

Our internal and external spaces should be informed by concepts of adaptability, wellbeing, and sustainability. Contrary to common practice, we should move away from the term ‘accessibility’ which has the potential to tie a project to certain regulations. Instead, we should think in terms of ‘inclusive design’ that “considers the full range of human diversity with respect to ability, language, culture, gender, age and other forms of human difference” (Inclusive Design Research Centre). We can consider an inclusive design approach as one that “perceives disability as a mismatch between our needs and the design feature of… [the] built environment. This shifts the responsibility to the design, and to the designer, to correct the mismatch” (Inclusive Design Research Centre).

Consultation is key. If we want our projects to speak for the community then we need to speak with the diverse communities we serve. This is achieved by engaging with them to commence the process and conversation, rather than relying on them to provide feedback later. We can draw from individual experiences – from staff, care workers, experts in interior space, and, most importantly, people from marginalised communities who should themselves be empowered to lead in the delivery of spatial equity.

“Marginalisation describes a state in which individuals are living on the fringes of society because of their compromised or severely limited access to the resources and opportunities needed to fully participate in society and to live a decent life.”

Cruwys et al., 2013

One challenge of designing for inclusion is to ensure that spaces are for all people, not segregated into ‘us’ and ‘them’. We need to make sure we are designing with, not for. As standard practice, we should be engaging, listening, and collaborating on projects with consultant’s representative of the relevant community. This process of reflection begins in our studio, at our desks, with ourselves as designers. We need to acknowledge and challenge our own innate biases that we bring to the design process. By being transparent about our methods and processes we can begin to change our behaviour and perspectives as designers as well as championing our organisational values of insight, communication and trust in our work.

We can go further – change should begin at the tertiary education level with diversity and inclusion in the curriculum. “Design education is often undertaken in a process where students and faculty base their designs on what they already know about themselves and their peers, or on stereotypical notions of others” (Rieger and Rolfe, 2021). We need to push beyond what we already know, and the baseline set by the Australian Standards to explore and propose new ways of thinking about the uses and users of space. Younger generations with new ways of thinking are an excellent antidote to outdated and inequitable approaches to built environment design.

Inclusion in Practice

It is disingenuous to espouse the ideals of accessibility, inclusivity, adaptability, and sustainability without putting them into practice. At Hames Sharley, we have begun the process of reflection in topics such as repositioning our design perspective from able-bodied and non-able-bodied to permanent, temporary, and situationally able users.

We are conducting research into neurodiversity in the workplace both on ourselves and as a step in our client briefing process. We expect to be able to challenge the current understanding of there being a neurodivergent cohort of approximately 18% in a typical workplace and we are finding specific sectors seeking particular neurodiversities in their staff according to the type of work they are looking to execute. This is helping us and our clients to understand the range of spaces and atmospheres that different people require to feel comfortable.

We are focused on incorporating situated technologies in our designs to ensure the diversity of user-friendly items and design components. We are also aiming for all of the Independent Living projects in our Seniors Living Portfolio to comply with Gold Level liveable housing guidelines. For example, at our Curtin Heritage Living project in Cottesloe, Western Australia, we included level access for multiple paths of travel to be utilised throughout the building to accommodate all types of mobility. This project undertook a rigorous design process where the end users - staff and residents - were consulted during every stage of the project.

Image of carer sitting with a resident in a luxury bedroom of senior living accomodation.
Marine Views, Cottesloe, Western Australia

We’ve been on a learning curve with a 900-person Activity Based Working project. This was planned entirely according to accessibility standards including carefully ensuring wheelchair accessibility at every non-standing work setting and the limited standing work settings have immediately adjacent seated height equivalents. Kitchens were designed and built to Australian Standards. Over time the kitchens were found to not meet the needs of one specific user despite being an improvement on their previous kitchens according to every metric. We looked harder into discretionary Australian Standards rather than legislated ones and compared that guidance to the actual needs of our client. The result is a retrospective alteration to discrete areas of two kitchens to provide lowered counters with filtered hot and cold drinking water, a sink and preparation space. A microwave and space for a toaster or sandwich maker was also created at lower levels. Both benches are lower than standard and importantly they are at different heights to each other to increase the range of people they accommodate. Our wheelchair-bound client has restricted reach so all fittings were moved forwards to the front of the kitchen bench to make them available, this included moving the sink so far forward that it technically breaches the Australian Standard clearance requirement on one floor however in this instance we agreed this was the right approach.

Our learnings on this floor led to a customer interface on another floor that has counters at four different heights as well as a shared kitchen that is at DDA height in its entirety.

Image of an inclusive-designed kitchen with lowered counters and spaces for wheelchair users. The kitchen is white with curved counters and black fixtures.

These are a few examples of implementing spaces that are inclusive to every member of our broader community.

Opportunity for Change

As designers, we have an opportunity to design a built environment that reflects, supports, and includes the diversity of our community and clients. We continue to build the voice and trust of Hames Sharley by recognising the gaps in our work and subjective ways of thinking. Through our research we work to actively innovate, develop our knowledge, and deliver projects in an ethical and sustainable way.

We have the privileged opportunity to influence decisions that will benefit all and we encourage our team to use workshops, knowledge platforms and new methods to explore new ways of assessing diversity, inclusion, and equity. There will be challenges but they will challenge us to ask new questions about design and its capacity for change.

Cruwys, T., Berry, H.L., Cassells, R., Duncan, A., O’Brien, L.V., Sage, B. and D’Souza, G. (2013). Marginalised Australians: Characteristics and Predictors of Exit over Ten years 2001-2010. University of Canberra, Australia

Inclusive Design Research Centre. n.d. “Disability as Mismatch | the Inclusive Design Guide the Inclusive Design Guide.” Accessed August 15, 2022.

Inclusive Design Research Centre. n.d. “Philosophy.” Inclusive Design Research Centre.

Rieger, Janice, and Annie Rolfe. 2021. “Breaking Barriers: Educating Design Students about Inclusive Design through an Authentic Learning Framework.” International Journal of Art & Design Education 40 (2).

Did you enjoy this article?