‘Diversity & Inclusivity’ panel highlighted the importance of sensitivity towards people with diverse needs

ADM Summit, ‘Designing the New World Order’, a virtual gathering attempting to explore the vast ocean of architectural design, gave a platform to an array of thought provoking discussions. The two-day event has its focus on four key themes of ‘Society’, ‘Diversity & Inclusivity’, ‘Technology’, ‘Education & Careers’, and includes a special section with students.

The main aim of the ‘Diversity & Inclusivity’ panel was to answer questions like how can architecture and design become social movements to diminish fragmented societies by giving up on pre-conceived design ideologies and prejudices to address the diversity in society and so on. The panel included Studio KIA founder principal Sabeena Khanna, Disability Access & Universal Design expert Siddhant Shah and Paraa director and co-founder Ruhul Abdin. The session was moderated by author-educator Sumita Singha, OBE RIBA (Royal Institute of British Architects), London.

Throwing light on the topic ‘Architecture and Design as Equalisers’, the panel elaborated upon accessibility for people with all sorts of disabilities, gender diversity, women’s participation and leadership in architecture and other needs and how to be more sensitive towards everyone’s needs.

“Accessibility is not an option; it has to be a part and parcel of our life,” Shah remarked.

The 30-year old young man, who has been a national level award winner, pointed out that there are only talks about wheelchair access, ease of wheelchair movement and so on. But there is a need for people to understand and recognize all forms of disability. Disabilities may be situational, it can be temporary, then one can have permanent disability and so on.

Sumita Singha spoke about hidden disabilities by citing the example of famous architect Richard Rogers who had dyslexia. She mentioned that mental health and anxiety issues are some other disabilities. Usually people have a preconceived idea regarding the appearance of a person with a disability.

The lack of awareness related to various disabilities in general and the dearth of proper facilities for everyone in public spaces makes it important for the architects to design with inclusivity. Hence, it becomes important to sensitise the architecture students towards everyone’s needs.

“When I joined the education system, first I thought of making sure that our learning infrastructure was accessible. Disability is not one size fits all,” Shah said.

Before talking about inclusivity he focused on making the curriculum inclusive.

According to Shah, the whole concept of inclusion in space planning needs to blend to make sure that ramps are not only for people who use a wheelchair, for tourists with heavy bags or for parents moving around with a stroller, but accessibility is for everyone; it should be for all.

“As architects we design spaces for human experience. We need our designs to embrace everyone, nurture them and make them feel comfortable. The space has to work seamlessly for all users, age groups. It is actually very important to sensitise ourselves about hidden disabilities. Sensibility and sensitivity towards these issues are very important,” Khanna said.

Vouching for ‘Diversity & Inclusivity’, which is a topic Khanna with 35 years of professional experience has been dealing with in various forums, she said, “There is strength in diversity, there is beauty in diversity and there is advantage in diversity. And diversity is creativity and derives innovation. Diversity & Inclusivity are two interconnected concepts.”

“Being an active practitioner myself, I feel strongly for women in the profession and their inclusivity at all levels. While women make up an equal part in the profession, it is an unequal part in the discipline. There are approximately 1.4 lakhs registered architects in India today, out of which only about 30,000 are women (which is 21.5 per cent). Amongst these, we have only 17 per cent practising independently,” Khanna said.

Khanna pointed out that architecture is a demanding career. There are various challenges including family responsibilities, career breaks, work life balance, workplace harassment and more, that women must overcome to become inclusive and become a part of the leadership.

It is also important to design for people with diverse needs and empathise with them. Through her work, Singha also realised how people with sight loss navigate the built environment. Wayfinding in buildings can be confusing for even people with sight and so, more signage is not the answer. Even Braille signs cannot help because less than one per cent of the two million sight impaired people in the UK actually know Braille.

Asked about the way to help people with diverse needs and if there are professional bodies, bodies that help architects and students with mental or other disabilities, Abdin said, “It is quite scant and limited. In terms of universities, they do their best to give personal care. I think Covid 19 has definitely created much more awareness of the need for mental health concerns for a lot of people. So, we have seen a little bit of a boom in that way, but beyond that I could not see any sort of practice.”

His organisation, Paraa, focuses on enhancing communities of Bangladesh through collaborative and multidisciplinary practice. At times he had felt that they are more of social workers than design workers.

Abdin who identified himself as a queer, has witnessed certain barriers where he has heard people not wanting to work with ones from the low income group, not engaging with certain class or communities. So they are slowly trying to sensitize students towards these issues. 

When asked by an audience member, the panel also dealt upon making spaces inclusive for transgender and non-conforming folks. Shah rightly pointed out the “need to stop gender labeling of spaces”. He stressed on the importance of “gender neutral public spaces”.

Shah pointed out that in India, the focus is still very charity based. There are national associations, NGOs which provide help, financial support being one. He stressed on other support like counseling support and post traumatic support after an acquired disability. But as such, there is no strong government support-body. There are certain schemes and in India there is something called ‘unique disability identification number’ but there is no awareness about it.

“Personally, in Delhi I have seen student-led initiatives. Students with disabilities from a very prestigious college got together and said that these are the needs and you need to provide us. I think we need to focus on the bottom-up approach,” Shah added.

Talking about the situation in Bangladesh, Abdin said, “Walking down the streets of Dhaka, one with any form of disability will not be comfortable walking down the streets due to noise, the path, the irregularity, the vendors occupying the space and so on.”

As a key takeaway, Singha resonated with the panel saying that society cannot be just for young people, it has to be for everyone. People in architecture need to re-educate, sensitise and listen to the people they are designing for. One has to be aware and interact more to address diverse needs of the people.