Most people, when asked to think about what accessibility means to them, they will envision things like wheelchairs, braille, closed-captioning and other prominent aids that have become ubiquitous with the term.
Approximately 15 per cent of the world’s population lives with a disability and only four per cent of these people have a visible disability. As entertainment and experience designers, it is especially important in our industry that we create spaces for the widest range of accessible needs, including, but not limited to, those with mobility, hearing, visual and cognitive impairments. Designers should consider what accessibility is in a broader way, and we need to strive towards Universal Design – designing inclusive experiences that anyone can enjoy and engage with in a way that matches their abilities.
Universal Design and Public Spaces
As designers we want to create the best experience for as many people as possible, which is an incredibly hard task knowing the wide range of demographics that can visit an entertainment destination. Take, for example, a theme park with an annual attendance of five million. Based on the above percentages, we could expect 750,000 people with disabilities to visit the park throughout the year. Around 720,000 of these visitors would have non-visible disabilities. This number does not include other demographics such as families whom we need to accommodate when designing an entertainment destination. Multigenerational families often visit as a group and create shared family memories. Across a single family you may have different ages, abilities and energy levels; you could have expectant mothers, parents with strollers, elderly grandparents, toddlers and teenagers. As designers we need to understand this and use these challenges to create well designed and integrated solutions that enhance the overall experience.
How can we as designers be as inclusive as possible and enrich the experiences for all guests?
Designing for All
Universal Design cannot be a Band-Aid fix or an afterthought. It needs to be part of a studio’s design culture. If organizations approach a new project by designing for all ages and abilities, then the final design will be a cohesive project that translates to an easy and seamless end-user experience with limited impact on the project budget.
Building a solid foundation, beginning with the master plan, can start the project team on the right accessible path. By starting the high-level planning and creative intent with accessibility in mind it becomes easier to create the culture of accessibility for the whole design team. Assessing existing site conditions and working within the site to create accessible paths to avoid stairs and ramps is just the beginning of what we can do as designers to create a cohesive experience for all guests.
Scarborough Library and Civic Green
The gentle sloping and high contrast pathways at Scarborough Library and Civic Green transverse the site with multiple rest areas and open spaces for strollers and wheelchairs along all paths. This creates a welcoming space that is easily accessed by a wide demographic. When designing local park projects to large-scale international entertainment destinations, Universal Design principles need to consistently be integrated into all parts of the design process.
As we begin to develop more detailed landscape plans, we can integrate planting and paving concepts to create a more accessible circulation plan. A landscape planting plan that introduces natural shaded spaces, designed in conjunction with seating areas, can improve the experience for visitors with limited energy or mobility issues. Developing a colourful and textured paving strategy can aid those with visual impairments as well as create unique and functional park features.
FORREC’s soon-to-be constructed Pier 8 in Hamilton has integrated accessible features throughout the design, including thoughtful pathways at the beach so those requiring mobility aids can be immersed in the beach experience. Over 50 per cent of the play features within the site are accessible, so any child can join their friends in the playground. When working on the design, we wanted to think beyond AODA compliance and considered how to create an inclusive space with shared experiences.
Universal Design was at the forefront for planning Wildwood Grove at Dollywood as we knew it had to be fully accessible. Planter edges were made wide enough for seating under trees, providing respite from the sun. The Wildwood Creek attraction was designed with special attention to grading and depth of water so a person in a wheelchair could easily be part of the fun.
Developing a cohesive final design needs to be a collaborative exercise, with everyone on the team moving in the same direction. Luckily engaging with the right suppliers is becoming easier than ever, with many ride manufacturers creating attractions that can accommodate a wide range of abilities. Furniture designers are looking at ways to provide flexible pieces that can be used by anyone, no matter their abilities.
Universal Design is not an obstacle of good design, but rather it can help create great designs that lead to beautiful, unique and accessible spaces. Shared experiences and creating exceptional memories are one of the many reasons theme parks and other attractions are desired destinations. If we as designers make Universal Design part of our everyday life, the final spaces and experiences will end up exceptional.