Design For All Institute of India, article by INCLUSION BY DESIGN

We are a multidisciplinary design firm committed to inclusion and social sustainability. We believe that in order for a community to be sustainable, it must be inclusive. Design impacts our daily lives, affecting the ways in which we navigate our environment, in our respective backyards and abroad. As a design firm, we have been privileged to assist a wide variety of clients, private, corporate and public, in evaluating existing conditions both built and human, and in applying user-centered design precepts to the process of creating improved accessibility in whatever project they are attempting to accomplish. In so doing, we have learned that a big part of our responsibility is to help our clients, contractors and suppliers let go of old methods, open up to new possibilities and invest in new thinking. We have been greatly encouraged by this evolutionary growth of understanding and the ability to think inclusively ourselves. We are inspired by the results we are seeing and continue to expand the development of Inclusive Design discourse.

Whether related to Sports, Recreation, Healthcare, Housing, Product Development and Manufacture, Tourism, Information or other field, every industry benefits and is made more efficacious by Inclusive Design. In the tightening and increasingly competitive marketplace of the modern world, Inclusive Design is providing a competitive edge to those willing to practice it by expanding potential markets for their particular goods and services. It is our experience that the design process itself benefits in the same way and is more effective in delivering quality product when it is usercentered. Another layer of inclusion is added. There are obvious complexities created by opening up the design process to participation by end-users and the larger, effected community. The warnings about the possible detriment to content quality if the process is not carefully managed are not to be ignored. However, we have seen that with due diligence and a balanced skill set in place the advantages to a more open and inclusive process vastly outweigh the potential stumbling blocks.

In 2004 we had an opportunity to consult with a resort hotel on improving accessibility in accommodations for travelers to the island of St. John, US Virgin Islands. Early efforts revealed questions regarding the development of isolated accessible accommodations within a larger inaccessible infrastructure and vacation experience. We quickly noticed that everyone who entered the conversation was hungry for information. Our next question: who all would be part of this larger audience; what information did they need; what potential impact could Inclusive Design have in this resort community?

As we researched answers to these questions, our opportunity to work with one St. John developer, soon evolved into an island-wide initiative to explore accessibility in the island’s travel and hospitality infrastructure. Eventually named, “Building A Destination For All 2005,” it became a year-long collaborative project that grew to include USVI Government, the USVI Department of Tourism, the USVI National Park Service, Friends of the VI National Park, USVI Hotel & Tourism, USVI Taxi Association, USVI Chamber of Commerce, our original collaborator, Maho Bay Camps and the a long list of residents of the island of St. John. The initiative culminated in a symposium, accessibility action plan, and bill passed by the legislature and signed into law by then Governor Trumbull, which set aside funds for a viability study towards the completion of an Accessible Caribbean Tourist Destination.

The project revealed a range of stakeholders with a variety of motives. There were the obvious governmental and commercial interests, but there also emerged a diverse group of private individuals and groups with interests of their own. However parallel to or divergent from our own ideas they appeared to be, valuing and accepting the interests and concerns of all comers proved critical to both the process and to the content quality of found solutions. We saw these stakeholders as potential collaborators; each agency, corporation and individual brought something important to the mix. There was a clear need for organization and structure to create communication across interests and for finding the common ground on which to begin building.

It fell to us, as designers, to discover what issues were brought to the table and what resources already existed in the group. Sometimes it meant we were pulling, sometimes pushing the process, but as communication and trust built, the project began to generate a vitality of it’s own. We were no longer simply designing solutions to meet user needs; we were developing what would become part of our inclusive design process management.
As a design firm committed to Inclusive Design of places, spaces, products, information and systems, we understand why we embrace inclusive design as a practice. It was reassuring to hear the community come to their own understanding. In meeting after meeting with the participants we heard people talking about the economic benefits and the social sustainability our project would bring to the community. We invariably heard them add their recognition that it felt like the right thing to be doing. It was easy to create buy-in across the diverse group of collaborators assembled; excitement was high. But now we were faced with the how to part of the job; how to further identify opportunities for greater accessibility and user-friendly experiences; how to collect useful information and feedback from the end user to assure that our design was meeting expectations and needs; how to continue to raise the bar, redefine the standards, design beyond compliance and open new avenues of opportunity where none were seen to be possible before; how to share best practices between individual collaborators to create a unity of effort across the larger project; how to implement and maintain design for all in a diverse community that had never attempted such a wide collaboration before; how to know what is working and what is not and to continue to improve the effort after you think you have it right.

The answer is that we became managers and facilitators as well as designers. The investment in this management process has proven critical to the project’s acceptance and Phase I success. Careful management of a broad collaboration like this one capitalizes on resources and maximizes opportunities. Following up on “Building a Destination For All” will require us to develop an expanded client management process designed to respond to the extended project scale. By considering and involving the diversity of participation, that management process will help maintain focus and project momentum toward achievement of the community’s shared goal of realizing “A Destination For All.”

We have had a good beginning. If the excitement and promise that came out of this first effort are to be more than a flash in the pan, we will need to continue to fine tune our process and build on what we have learned. We have no doubt in our minds that Inclusive Design, practiced inclusively, is the next tool to be mastered by designers working towards Design For All. We are applying what we learned in the tourism industry to all our work and are seeing the same results. There is work to be done, thinking to expand, but nothing in front of us except solutions to be developed. We are excited by the thought that the era of Inclusive Design has found a strong purchase and attained a new level of maturity.