“I really don’t like talking about people with ‘disability’”.
So declared Nick Morris OAM, former paralympic gold medalist and director of universal design and accessibility consulting firm Morris Goding Access Consulting.
Morris was referring to the need to move beyond talking about ‘disability’ and instead to broaden the focus to delivering buildings and infrastructure which meet the needs of all people who have accessibility requirements (refer point 1 below).
He was speaking during an online discussion hosted by Engineers Australia in conjunction with engineering and development consulting firm and webinar sponsor SMEC.
The forum was hosted by Amanda Rogers, National Corporate Engagement Manager at Engineers Australia. In addition to Morris, it also featured Tim Cupit, Team Leader – Transport Planning at SMEC.
The forum examined important considerations in planning for the Brisbane Olympic and Paralympic Games in 2032 from a viewpoint of both transport and accessibility.
This article focuses on the presentation given by Morris relating to accessibility.
Several themes stand out.
1. Language is important
When it comes to accessibility, Moris says the importance of terminology should not be underestimated.
First, it is important to be clear that the games comprise both the Olympics and the Paralympic Games and will run over a period lasting around two months. Whilst the former often generates greater attention, the latter will feature 4,500 athletes from 164 nations, 503 events across 20 sports, 10,000 media, three villages and is likely to sell two million tickets.
Generally speaking, sport which is involves elite athletes who have disabilities is known as parasport.
Beyond that, Morris says talks of a need to move away from talking about ‘disability’ and to shift the conversation more broadly toward accessibility requirements. These include requirements of not only those who have disabilities (vision/hearing/mobility/wheelchair/intellectual) but also others such as families, older Australians, taller/shorter people, those with illness or injury, those with drug and alcohol additions, emergency service personnel and those who are simply fatigued.
Speaking of fatigue, Morris points out that many after a day at the Olympics may be dehydrated, have had too much sun exposure or have walked long distances. As the day draws toward a close, these people require amenities such as shade, shelter and a shuttle bus.
Morris adds that terminology is changing. Rather than simply referring to disabled toilets, common terms nowadays include ‘all gender accessible toilets’ or simply ‘accessible toilets’.
Referring to the games, he talks of ‘accessible infrastructure’. This includes wayfinding, operations, communications, emergency evacuation and transport.
Furthermore, language matters. Indeed, terms such as ‘disability’ may invoke inaccurate perceptions about what people can contribute or achieve.
On this score, Morris points to Australian Paralympic skier Michael Milton. Despite having only one leg, Milton holds the Australian record for downhill speed skiing (213.65km/h) of any Australian skier. This includes able bodied skiers.
2. A Long and Lasting Effect
Moreover, considerations around accessibility as part of the Olympics can make a big difference.
At the Beijing Olympics in 2008, Morris was instrumental in driving for a section of the Great Wall of China to be made wheelchair accessible between Tower 1 and Tower 3 at a place called Badaling.
Whilst this section is small and enables users to move only 20 meters in each direction, it allows those with wheelchairs to see around 50 kilometers in each direction and enjoy the experience of being on the wall.
3. Olympic Experience is More Than Just the Games
When people come to the Olympics and Paralympics, Morris says their experience extends beyond the competition itself.
Indeed, it is a holistic experience of the city and country which often sees visitors extend their trip to include major tourist attractions.
When speaking about experience, Morris talks both about the broader Olympic/Paralympic experience as well as the transport/transit experience more specifically.
Regarding both, principles are straightforward.
Before arriving at the venue, people need to understand key venue features. This includes the location of toilets and the types and costs of available tickets.
In addition, people want to have available some or all of the features listed below.
This is true whether we are talking about athletes, media, locals, people from elsewhere in Australia or international travelers.
Features which add to this include:
- A website with accessibility and games specific information.
- Online ticketing for all.
- A seamless transport network.
- Friendly staff who understand basic accessibility features which are provided.
- Well-trained security personnel.
- Accessible venues with suitable seating and accessible toilets.
- Food and beverage.
- Access to tourism and city attractions.
Moving specifically to transport, important accessibility features include:
- A journey planner that links transport nodes.
- ‘Park and rides’ with accessible parking and drop offs and low-floor busses which link to this.
- All weather pathways which have rest seating and under cover areas.
- A combination of heavy rail, light rail, busses and parking which deliver options for people to travel to a venue, festival or live site
- ‘Last mile’ features which facilitate comfortable movement from train stations/tram stops etc. to venue entry. Features can include staff/volunteers, buskers, rest seating, shelter, food and beverage and tickets
- Security barriers and hostile vehicle mitigation – pathways which enable people to move comfortably through these.
- Clean, accessible all-gender toilets in predictable areas along the journey at train stations, drop-offs and park and rides.
- Picture boards to help non-verbal commuters to communicate with transport staff.
- Consideration of emergency evacuation which is accessibility focused
On the last point, Morris says the importance of an accessibility focus for emergency evacuation can easily be neglected. When things go wrong, it is important to have an evacuation strategy which is effective and facilitates safe and rapid egress. This must cater for those with accessibility needs.
4. Accessibility in Infrastructure, Operations and Information
When speaking of accessibility, Morris says three considerations are important.
These are physical infrastructure, operations and information.
On infrastructure, features may include:
- Drop offs with kerb ramps. These are important where busses have low floors. Without a kerb ramp, busses need to be lowered as much as possible to get the right angle. By contrast, with a kerb map on a reasonable gradient, those with wheelchairs can get in and out quickly and the bus can be on its way.
- Accessible pathways and doors.
- Building lines and lines of sight which are clear and enable movement in a linear direction.
- Tactile indicators – provision of a tactile surface on public pathways and access routes which can be felt underfoot and can warn those with vision impairments of an impending pedestrian hazard such as a staircase. (see below on use).
- Use of ticket scanners rather than turnstiles to facilitate ease of entry and exit without the need for turnstile gates to be pushed open.
- Seating – every 50 meters if possible.
- Food and beverage.
- Loading points which are needed where there is discrepancy between the height of the platform and that of trains/rolling stock at railways stations. These enable those in wheelchairs to board without the driver needing to get out a portable ramp.
- Accessible emergency evacuation.
Morris says importance of these items should not be underestimated. Further, relatively simple items such as rest seating can easily be overlooked.
He notes that use of tactile indicators is not possible for many events on account of difficulties in installing these in a manner which is integral to their installation to ensure that they don’t pop up and become a trip hazard. At any rate, following tactile indicators can be difficult in an environment of mass people movement.
Second, it is important to have effective strategies in operations.
Here, efforts should focus on:
- Employing people who have accessibility needs (where possible) and who thus have lived experience and can become part of the design process.
- Clear policies and procedures. Say, for example, it is not possible to make every train and tram accessible. Where this is the case, policies and procedures should define expectations about required service levels. This might include, for example, an accessible train or tram every second or forth vehicle.
- Thinking about accessibility not only from the viewpoint accessing the games themselves but also then accessing tourism and civic destinations.
- Others measures such as staff training in respect of accessibility issues and needs, a culture of service excellence among staff, ‘Travelers Aid’ partnerships, effective transport linkages between providers, and plans and wardens to facilitate accessibility needs during emergency evacuation.
According to Morris, the point about accessible connections between games and other destinations is often overlooked. Whilst many cities have effective plans for visitors and locals alike to access the games, accessibility linkages between the games and other tourist hotspots are often broken.
Instead, tourists need not only to be able to get to the games but to then transfer from a live site to other attractions.
In terms of operations, Morris says an interesting point revolves around speakers.
In the past, train stations have featured old-style speakers which are four meters up and which blast out information to cover entire platforms.
Nowadays, these are being replaced by TVs and low-level speakers with cone speakers that enable you to sit near TVs and hear a clear sound.
Finally, there is information.
This includes sources such as websites, APPs, station staff, signage (static and dynamic), announcements, beacons, other passengers, customer service, ticket boxes, platforms, drivers and destination accessibility.
On this score, Morris says organisations should communicate not only what is accessible but also what is NOT accessible.
As someone who lives with a disability, Morris says he has no concern about being told up-front that, say, every third bus was not accessible. Indeed, he would rather have this information available to assist him to plan his day.
In addition, information provided should be up-to-date and accurate and should accord with the situation on the ground.
Recently, Morris undertook an accessibility review of Melbourne’s Burnley Station.
On the web site, things sounded promising. Stated accessible features included tactile indicators, ramps, an accessible toilet and much else.
Upon arrival, the situation was different. Pathways were 30 years old, Tactile indicators were worn and thus ineffective. The edge of the platform was exposed. Ramps were so steep that Morris was unable to push up them. The accessible toilet was located on the middle platform – very difficult for him to access.
In situations such as this, Morris says it can be difficult for those with accessibility needs to plan their trip.
5. Toilets are Critical
In talking about accessibility, Morris stresses the importance of toilets and change facilities.
These are especially important at transport stops as people may have been travelling for several hours.
Types of facilities can include:
- Adult change facilities.
- Accessible toilets. Depending on the toilet, these may have showers, baby change kits and/or first aid kits.
- Ambulant accessible toilets, which can be used by people who have mobility issues. Ideally, these should be made to be all-gender and thus able to be used by anyone.
- End bathrooms with showers and toilets.
- Changing places – purpose-built facilities which cater for requirements of those with high needs.
Engineers Can Make it Happen
Finally, Morris says engineers can make all this happening. Should this occur, he says benefits will be substantial.
“The challenge is out there,” Morris said.
“We’ve got the Commonwealth Games in 2026. We’ve got the Olympics and Paralympics in 2032.
“We’ve got a lot of engineers and a lot of work to do.”
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