Making transport work better for disabled people

Technologies to help improve mobility for disabled people were showcased at Coventry University at the launch of a new Centre aimed at making transport more accessible. However, a change in mindsets among transport operators and policy makers may have a considerable impact.

Mixed reality systems and a large driving simulator were among some of the exhibits drawing interest from delegates the other week at the launch of the National Centre for Accessible Transport, which aims to help improve accessibility for all.

Those gathered inside Coventry University’s National Transport Design Centre learnt how technology plays an important role in understanding the experiences of disabled people and helping to shape improvements in how transport services and vehicles serve their needs.

Look beyond the impressive kit, however, and you find that compassion and understanding are considered to be just as important in helping to make transport truly accessible for all.

“The voices and experiences of disabled people were not being heard in the right places and that is something we want to try to change. This new Centre aims to address some of those challenges and issues and we hope to spark new connections and conversations.”
Rachael Badger, the Director of Performance & Engagement from Motability, the charity

Motability recently carried out research which found there to be a stark ‘accessibility gap’ in the UK, where disabled persons make 38% fewer trips than non-disabled people; limiting their access to jobs, healthcare, education and social activities. “We felt there was not enough collaboration across the transport policy, research and disability sectors,” added Rachael.

While some transport providers want to do the right thing, “they don’t always have the solutions and ideas for inclusive policy, and there is a need to show them what works.”

The charity and Coventry University are joined by five consortium members in taking forward the National Centre for Accessible Transport: Connected Places Catapult, Designability, Policy Connect, the Research Institute for Disabled Consumers and WSP UK.

Designing with disabled users in mind

Michael Edwards, Innovation Director at Connected Places Catapult, said that for too long products, services and infrastructure have not been designed with disabled users’ needs at heart, thereby limiting their access to transport. “Even now in the design of new products and services, industry is not thinking about disabled users first,” he added. “This imbalance needs to be addressed.”

Event delegates heard from post-graduate researcher Stephanie McPherson-Brown from Coventry University who has mobility issues and described her difficulties travelling by rail from Glasgow. She said she never takes her independence for granted and described the “sense of overwhelm” that disabled people can feel when using trains, especially if services are not running as they should.

Coventry University Professor Paul Herriotts, who is leading the new Centre, explained that disabled people will be at the forefront of its work, helping to set the research agenda and co-create solutions to the problems identified. “It is critical to put users at the heart of the design and engineering process,” he told the event. “If we work with them from day one to understand their needs, wants and abilities and work with them to create solutions, we will have successful outcomes.”

Former wheelchair athlete Baroness Tanni Grey-Thompson lent her support to the new Centre in a video message. She said the initiative could help to “challenge the status-quo and ensure that disabled people have the same right to travel as everybody else”. While there has been positive change around inclusive transport in her lifetime, it has not gone far enough, she added. “I thought by now we might be having a different conversation about how disabled people travel”.

Coventry University post-graduate researcher Stephanie McPherson-Brown, who has mobility issues, described her difficulties travelling by rail

Travel challenges outlined

Among the guests listening to proceedings and taking a tour of the University’s design centre were wheelchair user Alan Norton from consultant Into Independence. He described the car simulator – where a static vehicle is placed inside a wrap-around screen featuring motion graphics of a city environment – as an excellent piece of technology that could help disabled people try out driving in a safer way.

“Until public transport gets much better and modes become more integrated, the car is technically the only way I can get from the house to my destination in a safe environment,” he offered.

Another guest was Helen Dolphin from consultant Dolphin Diversity, which advises transport bodies on accessibility issues. She said rail travel has got a lot better in the last 25 years, with level-access boarding in her region proving to be a “game changer” for wheelchair users like herself taking trains. “I don’t have to book assistance; I can just turn up”. But further afield Helen sometimes finds she has to rely on station staff being on hand to help.

“Centres like this are going to have such a huge impact because they can look at transport across all the different modes and how they integrate together. Often it’s those kind of interchanges where we see the most difficulties.”

She added that by designing for disabled people, you design for everybody. “I’ve seen that in my car: all the things that started as an adaption (for disabled people) are standard now such as keyless ignitions and boots that open when you press a button. Even modern handbrakes have a button!”

Catharine Brown, the Chief Executive of Designability said her big hope is that disabled people are no longer making significantly fewer journeys than non-disabled people. “But equally, we want to give disabled people the opportunity to make sure their needs are understood,” she said, “and that solutions are considered and designed in that process”.

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