Inclusive Design - Why is it so hard?

Joan Rutherford 112x112
Joan Rutherford
Chair, National Network of Older People’s Housing Champions

We all know the theory. An inclusive/accessible environment is good for everyone – including children and disabled people. And we pay lip service to our ageing population, some of whom may become disabled as we age. 

After the ‘inclusive’ London Olympic Games in 2012 the Built Environment Professional Education (BEPE) project was trumpeted by the government. BEPE would work ‘to embed inclusive design knowledge and skills into the initial and ongoing training and education of built environment professionals.’ 

In 2017, the Construction Industry Council (CIC) published ‘Essential Principles – Creating an Accessible and Inclusive Environment’1. Inclusive design was seen as fundamental, and the principles were to be integrated from the start of the urban design process.

That’s the theory, but what’s the practice? My own old University Planning school does not currently offer a module in Inclusive Design. A professor of Architecture at another university told me recently that his students ‘have a lot to learn’ so must pick up accessible design principles as they go along. This is despite there being a mountain of guidance - including the Building Regulations and British Standards - as well as the importance of disabled people’s lived experience.

There is an ‘othering’ of older and disabled people which promotes an environment that suits young, non-disabled people.  A lack of recognition that disabled people are ourselves growing older, our parents, our children. An attitude of ‘let’s do the design… and then work out how to make it accessible’. This trivialises the fundamental importance of inclusive design. 

Disabled People’s Organisations have campaigned since the 60’s for a more accessible environment. Much has been achieved externally, such as dropped kerbs and tactile paving, and better access to public buildings. However, there is still a sense that, so long as we provide ramps inclusive access is sorted, an approach that a colleague described as the ‘tyranny of the wheelchair’.

And although much of the external environment is accessible – at least for mobility impaired people – the most important thing for most of us is our homes. Not enough accessible and wheelchair accessible homes are being built to meet the need. Young disabled people cannot find a suitable home to move into either to live independently or with a partner 2.  And many older people cannot be discharged from hospital because of the lack of accessible accommodation.

The government announced in summer 2022 that the national standard for all new build homes would be Building Regulation M4(2), the basic accessibility standard.  I’ve heard nothing further since. The London and Liverpool Plans both include M4(2) as the minimum standard, but also require 10% of new homes to be to M4(3) or wheelchair accessible. All of us who support inclusive design should be pushing for these standards nationally.

In my ideal world schoolchildren would be introduced to the fundamentals of inclusive design as part of their education.  Maybe then adults wouldn’t park their cars over dropped kerbs or block pavements. Maybe shopkeepers wouldn’t think it ‘essential’ to put A-boards outside their shops… 

Until that glorious day we should focus on ensuring that all urban designers – planners, architects, landscape designers and highway engineers – are trained in inclusive design principles and are encouraged to see disabled people not as ‘different’ but as themselves growing older.

Let’s remember BEPE and take inclusive urban design seriously.

1.  Essential Principles – Creating an Accessible and Inclusive Environment – for Built Environment Professionals. (Construction Industry Council, 2017)

2. ‘Big Disability Survey 2022’. (Greater Manchester Disabled People’s Panel, 2022)

This guest blog is published to coincide with Global Accessibility Day 2023. For more on designing inclusively, visit the Housing LIN’s dedicated webpages at:


Add your comment

Leave this field empty