Designing for Disabilities
Last summer, the UK government launched a call for evidence seeking views to inform their Future of Urban Mobility Strategy. This is essentially looking at how people, goods and services will move around the country in the future.
Although there have been huge changes over the last 20 years, with significant growth in electrification and automation of road vehicles, and changes in how we travel with new business models such as ride hailing, ride sharing and Mobility as a Service, it is probable that there is going to be significant technology in the future that has not even been invented yet.
Future transport technologies should be assessed in terms of their impact on disabled users at the design stage.
I very much welcome the development of these new technologies which promise safer roads, less pollution and transport available when, where and how it is needed. However, in order to achieve inclusive mobility, the needs of persons with disabilities must be part of the development of these technologies, rather than considered as an afterthought.
This is because design omissions can have negative consequences due to the expense of retro-fitting. I therefore believe that future transport technologies should be assessed in terms of their impact on disabled users at the design stage. This may require intervention by government to ensure new technologies are both supported and monitored by regulation.
Although I am hopeful that further technological development will benefit disabled people, it is possible it will alienate some of the more vulnerable members of society who do not feel comfortable with technology, particularly the elderly. This could be alleviated in part by education, possibly by government, on the use of emerging technologies and services.
It is also important that developers of new technology understand the different needs of disabled users and can help provide a supportive and inclusive environment. This can help disabled users take advantage of new opportunities as they become available. Government intervention may also assist in ensuring the benefits of these technologies are not unduly delayed for those who can benefit from them the most.
I have already experienced the benefits of increased automation in cars as it has meant I have been able to significantly reduce the disabled adaptations I need to install. For example, my car knows when its lights need to be on full beam or dipped and when there is rain on the windscreen.
As cars become more automated in the future, it may mean those with disabilities and medical conditions which currently exclude them from driving will be able to drive if the car is fully automated. This would obviously require significant changes in legislation and current driving license requirements.
In addition, those involved in automated vehicles datasets used to train algorithms for automated driving systems should include interactions with vulnerable road users with different disabilities to ensure the systems are fully equipped.
The shift towards automation on the public transport network would most likely decrease human operators of many services. However, it is recognized that human operators do much more than just controlling the service and are essential in providing assistance to disabled and older passengers in many different forms. I believe that these kinds of additional functions of transport operators remain necessary and may be undertaken by new ‘customer assistance’ roles delivered by humans or even robots.
Already, there is a trend towards car sharing and it is a trend that is expected to increase, particularly in the electric-vehicle (EV) market where sharing a vehicle improves the economics of ownership. However, although most people can travel in any style of vehicle, this is not the case for wheelchair users who need to travel in their wheelchair or disabled people with other specific requirements.
Therefore, car sharing may be a scheme which is considerably harder for some disabled people to become involved with and they may therefore be deprived of the benefits of an EV car as well as car sharing.
I believe that the potential benefits of emerging technologies are likely to improve travel significantly. However, with the introduction of anything new it is important to note the potential unintended consequences that emerging technologies may bring.
This is why I am glad that the government is considering now how new developments across modes and technologies should be addressed in the next couple of decades, and is developing a strategy which should take into account the wide variety of needs of users.
Helen Dolphin MBE LLB BSc, is an Independent Mobility Consultant in the UK. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org