There’s no shame in finding the right equipment to keep you independent for longer

Sydney-based chair for the Centre for Universal Design Australia (CUDA), Dr Jane Bringolf

While Sydney-based chair for the Centre for Universal Design Australia (CUDA) Dr Jane Bringolf won’t be at the Perth Assistive Technologies expo, she has delivered seminars at previous expos and has some advice to offer on the subject, particularly for older people.

“Use every gadget and piece of equipment that you can because it is there to help you with your independence – and to quote my mother: who wouldn’t use her walking stick until an occupational therapist persuaded her into it and she found she could walk longer and better without pain – she said to me then: ‘so being independent means depending on things’,” Dr Bringolf says.

“This relates to assistive technology. You hear phrases like someone saying to an older couple after Susan’s had a fall in the bathroom, so you need a grab rail, and then the husband says: ‘Oh, so it’s really come to this now, has it?’

“The stigma around assistive technology is still there. People don’t want to be called disabled, which is laughable really.

“Granny would rather hang on to her daughter’s arm in the supermarket than use a wheely walker which would keep them both safe.

“I say to people as a motivational thing, because I have worked at the Independent Living Centre and I’ve seen everything there is to see to help. I am not frightened of growing old because I know there is a gadget for everything I want to be able to do and I am going to use it.

“If I need a wheely walker to get out on the street and keep going then I’ll be using a wheely walker.”

Dr Bringolf says her work with universal design, encouraging the whole community to develop barrier-free design in everything from buildings to the food they eat, aligns perfectly with the assistive technology industry.

CUDA promotes the concept and encourages a thinking process about design that embraces the full bell curve of the population.

“We provide a lot of information and advice; we are also happy to do paid consulting, but the marry up between assistive technology and universal design is an easy one; it’s like a continuum along a spectrum.

“At one end you have very specific devices to overcome or support specific physical or emotional or sensory loss – a classic one would be a prosthetic limb – and at the other end you have environments that will allow a person to walk easily in and around whether it be open space or a building or whatever.

“The example I use is that a wheelchair will give you mobility, but if there is no level entry into the building the wheelchair is of little use.

“Likewise, if there is level entry to the building and you don’t have the assistive technology then that doesn’t work either, but the two come together at some point along that continuum.”

The concept of universal design began many years ago in America as barrier-free design to include wheelchair users, particularly those coming back from the Vietnam war who were using wheelchairs and couldn’t get across the street because there weren’t basic things such as kerb ramps.

“Once they got the kerb ramps in place there was a realisation that people with prams and bikes and shopping trolleys find it easier to cross the road as well, actually it’s a universal design, and that is how universal design got going.

“Then of course we had the legislation in terms of disability discrimination – the U.N. convention and so on. They’ve picked up that term universal design which is why it’s associated mostly with people with disability, however, if we’re thinking about the whole population bell-curve we’re talking about a whole range of diversity, men, women, different genders, people from different backgrounds, different ages, different abilities.

“We’re talking about not just physical disabilities, but also those invisible ones such as autism and all the rest.

“Universal design has evolved over the last 40 or 50 years so it’s not a new concept, but it is often more recently that people for the first time have heard it.”

CUDA’s main role is in promoting the concept, something Dr Bringolf does through a regular newsletter and articles in the media which might relate to everything from architecture, tourism, transportation, website design, or graphic design.

“We’re all designing things every day. We design a meal, we design an email and all of these things that we design even if we’re not trained designers. We need to think about who is going to be using this and how well will they be able to use it or will they be able to use it at all.”

Take an email for example.

“Is it in a font that lots of people can read, is it in short sentences, is it easy to read, is it a plain language one or is it lots of waffle, what kind of typeface are you using, are you using a squiggly one or using something plain like an Arial or Helvetica? All of those sorts of things mean you are designing whether you realise it or not.

“But I think that detracts from the key thing and that is that universal design covers anything and everything you can think of, everywhere, every time for everybody.”