It’s not a question many accessibility audits ask but it is this sensing of comfort or discomfort and happiness or distress that is key to understanding a whole new area of accessibility.
The stress of modern life affects us all and it is new research, in books like Paul Dolan’s Designing For Happiness, that shows how we can understand it professionally and help architects and property owners create places that are not only physically accessible but cognitively accessible.
I often work in museums on interpretation and wayfinding for people with physical and cognitive impairments. Exploring museums can be a fun adventure but the size of the places, the crowds and all the new information can create problems. We all need to recognise that accessibility is also about perception and intelligibility.
A place can be accessible but not look it – maybe the ramp signage is slightly shadowed at some times and maybe the access ramp is just behind a pillar. These two events together transform the visitor’s perception of the place. It looks inaccessible and so it is inaccessible. The solution is not in building another ramp. This is about creating intelligible places with trained staff to support visitor expectations and recognise perceived problems.
The work to create cognitively accessible places is in its early days thusfar. However, there are people who are laying out the conceptual framework and researching the technology for this new area of work.
Steve Maslin (www.stevemaslin.wordpress.com) has already written about Design for the Mind and identified four core areas that need a framework of standards to be developed around.
- Sensory, Social and Spatial characteristics of an environment
- Orientation (in time and space) within an environment
- Safeguarding within an environment
- Neurological and psychological aspects of physical and sensory interactions
Paul Dolan notes that happiness is pleasure and purpose over time and that much unhappiness is derived from misapplied attention. The point is not to build jolly places all the time but to create appropriate surroundings for people to achieve what they need without having too much fuss and bother. In this type of work, too much signage and too many accessible routes can be as stressful as too few. It means working with people with a range of impairments to test how much is right for that space and for the types of user journeys expected there.
Dr. Eiman Kanjo at Nottingham Trent University is using wearable technology (a form of watch that monitors heart rate and skin conductivity) in her research on Mobile Affective Sensing and Urban City Mood. This work is about testing how to collect huge amounts of personal data to understand the stress of a shop or a mall for a visitor. It is not about feeding back that stress to the individual but more about creating a mass of datasets that show how, on average, different people choose the move through buildings in different ways because of their mood and how the place affects them.
This research is building new tools for auditing places and understanding how they have emotional effects that were previously undiscoverable. It will allow us to design and redesign indoor and outdoor spaces to make them meet the standards of cognitive accessibility that Steve Maslin has begun to map out.
Within this framework and these new technologies, the solution I find most helpful now is training staff to be proactive in assisting people who have problems with the cognitive accessibility of their building or site.
I now run workshops for access professionals, museums and visitor attraction staff and architects to build awareness of the issues of cognitive accessibility and to provide them with the basic tools for auditing places and enabling effective assistance and management by staff.
It is early days in this area of accessibility but people are already working on understanding the problems, creating the tools and formatting the frameworks and solutions to enable better places that feel accessible and happy.