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Engineers Without Borders Australia (EWB) uses human-centred design to promote equitable access for people with disabilities in Australia and the Indo-Pacific.

One in five people in Australia, almost four million people, have a disability and the numbers are increasing with our ageing population. Within the working age bracket (15 – 64 years), people with a disability represent 2.2 million Australians of working age and are twice as likely to be in the bottom 20% of gross household incomes.[1]

“People with disabilities have the right to the same opportunities as everyone else. We use human-centred design to put people at the centre of the design process. This ensures they have input into creating infrastructure and technology that meets their needs and enables them to participate in the community,” explains Heidi Michael, EWB’s International Program Manager.

In Australia and the Indo-Pacific, EWB is promoting awareness of human-centred design through a range of education programs that target school students (School Outreach Workshops) and university students (Humanitarian Design Summits and the EWB Challenge) as well as supporting engineering professionals to incorporate human-centred design principles into their everyday work.

Treasurer for EWB Queensland’s Professional Chapter, Robert Hoffmann, who is a civil engineer with GHD, found his experience working on an infrastructure project revealed how small changes can have a significant impact for people with disabilities.

Robert says, “When working on accessibility for a transport infrastructure project recently, we  looked at using large handrails, but they are too big for frail, older people. We realised small handrails would not only be cheaper, but better for the community.”

“You don’t realise as an engineer what an influence you can have in society. By making buildings, transport and infrastructure more accessible, we can make a huge difference to a lot of people’s lives.”

Robert was inspired to share his experiences and organised a speaker night at GHD to explore how infrastructure design concepts can promote accessibility for all levels of mobility. Representatives from EWB, Spinal Life Australia and GHD discussed how simple design features can be incorporated into projects to enhance usability for all members of the community.

“EWB is a good platform to start conversations and educate people about accessible design,” says Robert.

Accessibility is a concept that transcends cultures and EWB is also proactively promoting equitable access in Cambodia through the Inclusive Design and Accessibility in Cambodia (IDA) Project.

The IDA Project, funded by the Australian Government’s Australian NGO Cooperation Program (ANCP), started in 2015 as the Assistive Technology and Livelihoods Project (ATL) Project and originally focussed on bringing people together from the disability, water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) sectors to overcome barriers to sanitation access in Cambodia.

Meghan Williams has just returned from Cambodia where she spent a year as EWB’s Project Coordinator for IDA raising awareness about accessible design by fostering relationships with community partners, facilitating the development of assistive sanitation devices and promoting knowledge sharing across sectors.

Meghan says she found the built environment in Cambodia very inaccessible and understanding of disability is low. The only places she observed that had a good standard of accessibility were expensive hotels or big malls.

She promoted inclusive design through training workshops with WASH organisations, educating different organisations to make sure they were including accessibility and inclusive design in their projects from the beginning and presenting at networking events with local groups such as WatSan, which brings together organisations working in water and sanitation in Cambodia.

Highlights of the last year included working with a communities in Sven Rieng and Battambang to develop four assistive devices (a bamboo railing, a wooden toilet seat and two metal supportive railings) for community use; collaborating with local social enterprise Agile Development Group to support the Banteay Prieb Training Centre (BPVTC) for people with disabilities to design and prototype their own assistive devices (four designs, 24 participants including 11 women, 15 men, 80% with disabilities) and raising awareness and mainstreaming of accessible design and devices through training and workshops with BPVTC, three community based rehabilitation organisations, the Cambodian Disabled People’s Organisation and ten water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) organisations.

“There’s the conversation and the awareness raising, but actually having something tangible to go along with those conversations is really important so you can demonstrate the impact you can have,” says Meghan.

“When we started doing community workshops, the challenge was to design a device that met the expectations of the users and ensure it was appropriate and low cost. We used a human-centred design approach to empower people with disabilities to create their own solutions. We were designing very simple devices by creating an environment where people could say what they need and what works for them,” says Meghan.

Mrs Korng Saveoun from Savay Reign province, for example, who is a single leg amputee, thought she could never have handrails in her home as she had only seen steel rails which were too expensive. Through conversations about the function of handrails, she realised she could achieve the same outcome with bamboo. She has since installed bamboo handrails in her toilet at home.

Conducting the human-centred design workshops, Meghan says, “I learnt a lot about working in a different culture, around patience and expectations. It can be so hard to leave your prejudices behind and really listen to what people are telling you. I’ve learnt you should always keep asking questions and don’t make assumptions.”

The IDA Project has evolved over the last 18 months and is now focusing on improving accessibility across the built environment in Cambodia by providing technical support to local organisations in inclusive design and fostering the development of assistive devices for health and sanitation.

As the IDA Project moves into a new phase, the next EWB Project Facilitator will be embedded within The Agile Development Group, to further develop and scale assistive devices for the Cambodian community.

The aims of the next phase are to achieve increased access for people with mobility issues in Cambodia to public and private spaces such as sanitation, housing, workplaces and public transport and increase awareness of accessible built environments and services in Cambodia.

Meghan is optimistic the IDA Project is creating a more inclusive built environment in Cambodia.

“I hope all the training and knowledge sharing produce more examples of inclusive design in communities and that adds up to little steps in the right direction. Now that the project is looking at the built environment as a whole, I hope awareness will improve to the point where, within the next two years, there’s noticeable differences in accessibility in buildings and bathrooms, and accessibility is considered at the beginning when infrastructure or buildings are being designed,” says Meghan.

“Whether it’s locally or in Cambodia, at the end of the day, we are working towards ALL people having access to the essential services they need. By working directly with the users to develop accessible sanitation facilities, or more accessible buildings or transport systems, people with disabilities, elderly people, pregnant women, everyone, will be able to access these essential facilities independently and have improved health and livelihoods,” explains Heidi.

This program is supported by ANCP and Australia Aid.

Written by Matilda Bowra.

[1] Australian Network on Disability http://www.and.org.au/pages/disability-statistics.html