Cameron Davies, Peter Richards & Hugo Riveros on Disability

29 November 2021

Ahead of International Day of People Living with Disability (IDPWD), Marketing & Communications Manager Emma Eldridge sat down with Director Cameron Davies, Practice Fellow Peter Richards and Senior Architectural Technician Hugo Riveros to talk designing for disability.

Emma: Can each of you tell me a bit about your personal or professional experience with disability?

Cameron: One of the first projects I worked on that tackled those challenges was a day respite centre in Sherwood, which was a renovation of a Queenslander. It was an interesting project because it explored two aspects: providing accessibility to a greater range of users and also a human-centred design. Here we had a style of building that is inherently inaccessible but well-loved. Making it functional was complex but worth it because it ended up being incredibly popular with those who used it – so much more than an institutional setting.

Hugo: I live with a disability. I developed an autoimmune condition called spondyloathritis around 10 years ago that limits my mobility. I’ve had to vastly adapt my life to accommodate it – from modifying my apartment and vehicle to other lifestyle adjustments. For a time without medication, I required a wheelchair which gave me a greater perspective on day-to-day issues with accessibility. 

Peter: As Cameron said, one of the first projects we worked on was the Sherwood Place Respite Centre, which is currently for sale. We lowered the ground and extended it to the front and sides to make it accessible. I saw it just the other day; it sits nicely on the site and feels welcoming. It’s got a good scale about it and all the principles of human-centred design – the house helped bring those out and we were able to add things in to make the project work.

But we’ve always been involved with specialised housing. As far back as the 1980s, I was engaged by what was then known as the Catholic Disability Service to consider the deinstitutionalisation of residences for young people living with disability. The idea was that young people could instead live in share houses – what we would call co-housing today – and then in the community there would be staff to provide support. A community-managed approach rather than an individual one. We went through a consultation process and met with a lot of young people and worked together on how they might like to live.

Later on, we partnered with Multiple Sclerosis Queensland on the design of a specialised, high-care facility. The Springfield Apartments offer self-contained one-bedroom apartments with assistive technology and 24/7 care, but also shared spaces. That project was different again and complex in terms of facilitating the technology required, but what remained was that need to create a sense of home and connection.

Emma: That leads into my next question. At Deicke Richards, we use design to achieve social purpose – and care about shaping a responsive, inclusive and equitable world. Hugo, can you tell me about your 3D printed wheelchair? 

Hugo: With the wheelchair, I was travelling overseas for the first time in a while and came across people pushing themselves along on carts they had made to move around. It was heartbreaking to see so many people living with similar challenges to me but without effective solutions. It made me realise how fortunate I was to have a functioning wheelchair – and inspired me to think about mass-producing inexpensive wheelchairs, ones people could make with little effort and cost.

At the time, Makerbot was staging an assistive technology competition using 3D printing. I thought I could design the components to be 3D printed and then send a printer somewhere so people could print them for themselves. My design ended up coming second, and I then shared it online for people to download and print. I’ve received wonderful feedback from people and schools who have done so, but I’d love it to reach people all over the world that can’t move independently – so they can all benefit from living a more mobile life.

Emma: Cameron and Peter, what’s required to effectively design for people living with disability?

Cameron: Above all, we need real empathy for the people who will use the spaces we design. One of our clients, Churches of Christ in Queensland, has done some work to encourage this through developing an immersive dementia experience. As a result of participating in this course, our team was able to walk in the shoes of someone living with dementia – to understand the issues they might have with sight, hearing, comprehension, stimulation. That gave us another lens through which to design, beyond the usual written standards.

Peter: With urban design, we focus a lot on accessibility for people of all abilities. It’s interesting how often you want to cross the street to get somewhere, and you can’t – you have to go left and right, across the other side, then back over a tunnel or whatever. Safe, accessible and direct routes – and choices of routes – where you can move around the environment are ideal.

But going back to housing design, when you’re working with affordable and social housing projects, embedding principles of silver, gold and platinum standards of living creates a diversity of new housing. This means housing is more robust in future, and prevents a need to convert things that aren’t the right size – in terms of corridors, bathrooms – for people living with disability. What was interesting about the Liveable Housing Guidelines was the revelation that there was very little you needed to do to a house to make it accessible. There were a few very specific things to change, but they could all be done within the existing paradigm to make housing far more adaptable into the future. There’s been a great uptake of those design principles in, for instance, independent living and also regular commercially available units. So that’s been a great thing.

Cameron: Our work with special schools is different again – as there’s a range of learning outcomes as well as physical and intellectual abilities within one educational environment. There’s a lot of detail in the management of that, so it is to a degree about co-design – with the schools, students and families.

Emma: This year’s International Day of People with Disabilities (IDPWD) theme is ‘fighting for rights in the post-COVID era.’ People who live with disabilities have been among the most affected by the pandemic; experiencing reduced access to health care and rehabilitation services, more pronounced social isolation, poorly tailored public health messaging, inadequately constructed mental health services and a lack of emergency preparedness for people with special needs. Beyond learning about and raising awareness of the experiences of people living with disabilities during the pandemic, what can we do – in our own workplace and work – to ensure barriers are reduced?

Cameron: It’s a really good question and nothing’s too idealistic. We are always looking for opportunities to engage with the end users of our work – whether it is through our own Enquiry by Design workshops or those staged by industry, like Longevity by Design.

Peter: With our Infill Guidelines for Older Australians, we worked very hard to consult with people and use design as a way to understand issues and opportunities. But it can depend on the client – their specialist knowledge and openness to a different approach.

Cameron: I think direct experience is an important path to improvement. Having that connection to differing ability – whether it’s personal or through a family or team member. We’ve been working with Jobsupport over the last few months on a role for one of their young people and look forward to welcoming them into our team in the new year. We are preparing to make some physical changes in our workplace to ensure optimum access. Those experiences will no doubt raise awareness and experience of differing needs and embed that knowledge in our team, absolutely.

Learn more about our work in aged care and retirement living, affordable and social housing and special schools here – and Hugo’s 3D printed wheelchair here.