From design to access: MiLab goes on safari

29 Jun 2015

  Photo: UNDP/Victoria Puiu

We often consider the buildings we’re constructing as comfortable and accessible for all.

How often do we remember what a challenge they can be for those living with disabilities?

As a part of a diversity initiative task force, we made an effort to assess the level of accessibility of our very own United Nations in Moldova premises.

We conducted three user safaris with people with physical, visual and hearing impairments.

What’s a user safari?

A user safari is a valuable way of understanding how people interact with and experience a service or environment.

There is no one better to spot the weaknesses when it comes to accessibility than with people who experience those challenges first-hand.

Empathizing and co-creating with users is at the heart of MiLab’s work, and this time was no different. In order to overcome any initial awkwardness or trepidation, we used role-playing to break the ice.

We assigned each participant a role he/she had to perform throughout the whole user-safari – i.e. a staff member, presenter, or participant at a project meeting.

Keep an open mind…and schedule.

As facilitators, we had to be flexible going throughout the exercise. Each person had their own way of interacting with the environment.

Going through and analyzing two buildings was tiresome for participants – but also empowering.

Although some participants were a bit reluctant at first, as the session unfolded they became more active and vocal in suggesting improvements.

At the end of the session, most even asked us to repeat the exercise in public spaces like hospitals, schools, and the apartment blocks they live in.

We also learned that:

A.    Psychological barriers can be as painful as physical ones

One of our participants put it this way: “Generally, entering via parking lot or back entrance makes you feel like you’re damaged – it’s humiliating! Everyone should enter through the same side!”

B.     Many changes don’t require big budgets, but rather a change of attitude

While infrastructure adjustments are often expensive, it is often simple things like brighter lighting, correctly adjusted signage, and clear information provision that can make all the difference when it comes to accessibility.

C.     It is cheaper to ask users at the beginning than have to adjust things later

The United Nations is renting office space from a business centre and had earlier pushed the building administration for improving accessibility.

As a result, some adjustments were made, including a wheelchair adjusted bathroom. However, our user safari revealed that, for instance, the toilet is adjusted for basic mechanical wheelchairs and not wider – electrical ones.

Finally, we learned that in order to promote necessary changes, we need to also involve decision makers in these experiences.

This way they can empathize themselves with the experience of people challenged by different kinds of impairments and accept more easily the adjustments that have to be done.

The building administrator of one of our locations told us:

“When I see how difficult is for them moving around the building, I get goose bumps!”

Even before we released the safari’s results, he had already set to work at the first adjustments for the improvement of accessibility.

We are looking forward to seeing our offices becoming more accessible.

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