Could there be anything more universal than ‘universal design’? Pawan Dhall chats with Mainak Ghosh, who is Associate Professor, Architecture with Jadavpur University, and discovers how it relates not just to the products and built spaces we use, but also to our emotions, bodies and the social environment we live in
This interview was conducted on June 17, 2017 on the side of a workshop on gender and disability organized by Sruti Disability Rights Centre in Kolkata. At the time of the interview Prof. Mainak Ghosh was affiliated with the Indian Institute of Technology, Kharagpur. First part of edited excerpts follow.
Pawan: Mainak, please tell us something about yourself, your work and career.
Mainak: My research area deals with environmental perceptions. It’s about spaces, so when we talk about environment, it covers the manmade environment, and that in turn covers buildings, roads, urban infrastructure, urban facilities like parks and you know any open spaces as such.
It also caters to products, so, say, it starts from your pen, to your sofa, to your air conditioning machine, because that is changing your environment to a great extent. It also includes urban amenities and facilities and products related to that.
There’s also a perceptual factor towards the environment. We’re experiencing this environment all the time; the whole cross-section of the society is perceiving this environment and there comes a factor that based on this perception many of our decisions are made, our physiological activities, our stress . . . even our emotions depend on it, whether we’re feeling good or bad. For example, we have a room, a very nice, well-maintained room, but we don’t have the air conditioning working. We’ll be uncomfortable; we won’t be efficient anymore.
We have a good room, a good air conditioning system but when we open the window, we see only a concrete jungle or a slum or a busy highway – that again might affect our efficiency. So it’s a combination of all of these things, and it cuts across our ability-disability perspective, and from various dimensions.
So I work on these aspects, and my background is I did my PhD on urban design, and my Masters was on design (more of perceptual design). My Bachelors was in architecture. And I have some industrial and academic experience, so I’m like a mixed bag you can say!
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Universal design as a dynamic idea and not an after-thought
Pawan: So, last year in a similar workshop as this time on gender and disability, you had taken a session on universal design, which is part of your work, and that as a concept itself a lot of us found fascinating. My question is what are the principles behind universal design?
Mainak: Yes, certainly, but first we have to understand the premise of universal design. So a few points on that and then I’ll move on to the principles. Basically what does universal design look at – it revolves around the ideas or concepts for production of an environment for people, which we assess, use, or reach out to, irrespective of our demographic variations or variations around disability and ability.
If you look at the first factor that I’m emphasizing – it’s about an idea or a concept. Universal design is not just this that there is a staircase and we need a ramp, so let’s just put up a ramp. It’s not about that – it’s about the idea to do this. Why I’m saying this is because today we’re in a society where we’re treating universal design as something special. But that’s a myth. The fact is universal design is not something special, it anyways has to be there.
Pawan: The very word ‘universal’ implies this.
Mainak: The very word ‘universal’ talks about that, and we also need to look at whether is there anything universal? So we really cannot state anything to be universal. That essentially implies that we should be in a hunt for betterment. What seems to be universal today might not be so, so we should be vigilant, which is one of the principles I’ll talk about. We have to assess our efficiency and we have to record what we’re using, which we by nature never do.
The building that we have been using since childhood, have we made any alterations to it based on our requirement or on our parents’ requirement or our demographic requirement of age or weight? We generally get stuck to some concepts and then we don’t upgrade. It’s very important that we upgrade and achieve something which is universal.
So there are two concepts here. One is about universal design being an idea, it’s not about just creating something, but it’s about the idea which leads to that creation. Otherwise, even if you provide a ramp, it won’t work, there will be weeds around, people won’t be using it, it’ll be in one corner of the building – it’s not just about providing spaces or something extra.
The second thing is that it’s a continuous process, it doesn’t stop. So you cannot say that I’ve made something universal. It doesn’t work out that way. You’re in the process of making something universal. It might not be fit after a time, what you’re making today might not be fit tomorrow, it may need some adjustments. There could be so many angles to look at.
Pawan: So, it’s also more than maintenance. It’s not just doing more of the same, it’s also about – I mean something’s broken down and I just repair it, rather than that I should maybe aim to make it even better.
Mainak: Right, so it’s not just retro fitting. You will see that the latest 2016 Act for people with disabilities specifically mentions that it’s not an adaptation you should make, or some kind of retro fitting. I think the philosophy behind the law is that you do not take universal design as an after-thought. It has to be part and parcel of the design process. But certain things you cannot, like when you’re looking at a heritage building or something which already exists, you cannot just replace it. So you have to do some kind of adjustments, but as you correctly mentioned, it’s not just about maintenance, which comes later. So that’s why I’m reinforcing this that the definition of universal design holds that it’s the idea or a concept to build an environment, which then consists of many other things.
In our immediate surroundings, say, in the circles of our friends and family, peers, colleagues, when we’re walking on the streets – co-travellers, do we really talk about the concept of universal design? We generally don’t. Do we assess, do we raise a voice when we face a difficulty?
Like, there’s a footpath and you see the same pothole, and you come down on the street and bypass it every day; or in a train or a bus, you have a metal strip coming out and your clothes get torn, do you raise your voice against it? At least you can blog about it or talk about it. So this is about the idea and a concept, it’s not about when some legal action will be taken or that the law will take care of all the problems. That’s not something which principally universal design is looking at. It’s not about making these changes and making things suitable. Definitely these are a part of it, but they come later.
Let’s talk about another myth – that universal design is only for organizations, legal bodies and conferences, academics and intellectuals. But no, it’s about day-to-day living for a balanced livelihood. What is all human society doing at the end of the day? You’re making something for human society and you’re consuming that. So basically it’s about livelihood, and it has to be in a sound, balanced manner. That’s what we all are looking for.
And many a times we get conditioned. The Oriental culture, our societal set-up, cultures and activities are framed in a way that we’re very accommodating in nature. So if we find a footpath not walkable, we actually take the carriageway, and someday if we meet with an accident or hurt ourselves, we’ll be like: “Oh, thank god I just got a scratch, I haven’t lost a limb – god has saved me!”
It’s a good thing we’re very accommodating, warm, we rely on society, but if you look at the western living, it’s very individualistic and self-sufficient. Then you find a crucial need that all these things have to be taken care of. So there are pros and cons, but I’ve tried to point out that our social and cultural constructs are also different. So many a times we’re not aware about our rights or the kind of problems we face in our day-to-day lives.
Pawan: Or that things can be done in a better way, maybe we just haven’t ever realized that it could have been better.
Mainak: Absolutely, so that’s what I meant and was reinforcing that we need to be aware enough whether something is good or not good for us, irrespective of ability or disability. And then do we take some action about it? We together have to come up and talk about it, take some action like blog about it or use WhatsApp. With today’s advancement in technology we have the freedom to do that and a lot could be built around that also. So this is what I wanted to set as a premise.
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Domains of universal design
Pawan: What comes next?
Mainak: The next thing is that universal design works in three domains – I’ve borrowed these from the discipline of ergonomics (how easy or difficult it is to use something – see inset below). Ergonomics talks about human work. So we do work physically, say walking, pulling something, driving, taking vegetables out of the refrigerator. You have to understand that universal design doesn’t apply only when you’re on the streets or at a public facility. It’s part of all your day-to-day activities as well.
The first domain therefore is the physical one, where you’re looking at any work that is done physically or tangibly. So it could be understood in terms of something medical, biological, biochemical or physiological. For example, if you find it difficult to do something, like climbing up a ramp, if you can’t go somewhere or see certain things, or hear some announcements – all these relate to physical difficulty.
Now, there’s a fine line between ability and disability. For example, I’m an able-bodied person, so called, medically and legally. But say I meet with an accident, I go out of this building and hurt my leg and I can’t walk anymore. Is the environment congenial enough for me to take the next action? Or, say, I’m going to the airport with heavy luggage and all that. Is my environment congenial enough? So we can land up with temporary disabilities. That’s why I said that universal design is for both abled and disabled people. It’s not for just some special groups or about legal compliances. It’s for everyone, everywhere, any time.
The second domain is the cognitive domain. This deals with your perception, rationality, process of taking decisions, and how you make judgements. So it’s about mental and related aspects. Having said that, there’s a fine line again. Say, for example, thanks to our newer devices, you’re walking on the street talking into your mobile phone. Are you cognitively sound to walk on the road? You’re immediately cognitively disbalanced.
You’re talking on a phone and driving – this is a pertinent example, but more so, say, you’re a cognitively balanced, abled person, you’re walking on the road and you hear of disturbing news through a call or SMS. Then are you cognitively balanced any more? More so, if you’re driving, you might hurt someone else. So we flicker between these temporary abilities and disabilities, and for that matter, ability is a myth!
Pawan: Yes, that’s what I was thinking.
Mainak: When you say that I’m an abled person, it’s a myth. Rather I would state that today all of us are disabled. Take this for granted and design for things. We all are disabled to some extent.
Next is the third domain – the organizational or behavioural domain. Here we talk about the work set-up, our peer interactions, the kind of set-up where we interact with people and try to deliver something; our group dynamics and things like that. These issues have an effect on how well we perform. At the end of the day, why are we concerned about abled or disabled people at all? Because we want a society to run efficiently without any hindrance or discrimination – that’s what the whole idea is. The point is that discrimination can also make a structure non-efficient to a great extent.
Say, you’re working in an office set-up and are supposed to leave at 5 pm, but suddenly there’s some kind of an escalation and you now have to stay back till 9 pm. So for this 5 to 9 now, will you be able to perform the way you would have done during the day. No! It affects you in some manner, right? Or maybe when you’re doing that extra work, will you be able to take care of your physiological needs? Will you be doing enough exercise; does your brain get enough oxygen? Will you be drinking enough water; will you be taking enough meals? On the cognitive side, won’t you be missing your family?
Pawan: So in the example that you just gave, universal design wouldn’t just be about the physical structure, it can also be about, say, how an employee’s work is designed.
Mainak: Absolutely, and this is quite a burning issue. That’s why I go back to my first statement – that it’s about an idea or concept. As you correctly said, it goes beyond physical structure. It’s not just about making a car ergonomic, or making a building or street disabled-friendly. It cuts across a much wider spectrum.
For example, if we look at a road, do we look at its walkability? Do we feel like walking at all on the road? Because most of the time, even if it’s half a kilometre, we’ll take an auto- rickshaw or something because we don’t feel like walking at all. There’s a thing called walkability index, or there are things like safety issues. Do we feel safe?
In an organization also, do you feel safe, do you feel like working? Do you feel the need to work? We have to understand that at the end of the day a company or an organization – what is it all about? Essentially, it’s all about livelihoods.
There is a whole paradigm shift. People are today conscious about their whole being and their activities, their immediate surroundings, their living as such. So I think it’s time now we start looking at universal design in this light – not as a special case but as something regular.
Pawan: In that sense it’s just a coincidence that you’re talking about this issue in a disability workshop. But it can be talked about anywhere.
Mainak: Yeah, that’s an irony! I think today we should address this issue as something like ‘a better world to live in’. Or it’s something like ‘how do you make a happy life’, or ‘how do you live a balanced life’? So it’s a need for everyone today. From a legal or social point, we may need to draw some lines somewhere. But philosophically, universal design is for everyone.
To be continued.
Main photo courtesy: Sruti Disability Rights Centre, Kolkata. All other photo credits: Kaustav Manna