Tag Archives: autism

What would a truly accessible city look like?

Sweetwater Spectrum, austim-friendly housing in Sonoma, California (pic: Leddy Maytum Stacy Architects)

By 2050, an estimated 940 million disabled people will be living in cities, lending an urgency to the UN’s declaration that poor accessibility “presents a major challenge”.

The Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities and laws like the Americans with Disabilities Act, the UK’s Equality Act or Australia’s Disability Discrimination Act, aim to boost people’s rights and access. Yet the reality on the ground can be very different, as Guardian Cities readers recently reported when sharing their challenges in cities around the world.

Barriers for physically disabled people range from blocked wheelchair ramps to buildings without lifts. The cluttered metropolitan environment, meanwhile, can be a sensory minefield for learning disabled or autistic people.

Cities benefits from accessibility; one World Health Organisation study described how people are less likely to socialise or work without accessible transport. Cities also miss out on economic gains; in the UK the “purple pound” is worth £212bn , and the accessible tourism market for disabled visitors is worth £12bn.

My Guardian report today looks at some of the most innovative city-based developments in the UK, Europe, Asia, America and Australia. These include skyscrapers built using universal design principles to the retrofitting of rails, ramps and lifts in transport services or digital trailblazers that help disabled people navigate their city.

For example, mapping apps make navigating cities a doddle for most people – but their lack of detail on ramps and dropped kerbs mean they don’t always work well for people with a physical disability. The University of Washington’s Taskar Center for Accessible Technology has a solution: map-based app AccessMap, allowing pedestrians with limited mobility to plan accessible routes.

Wheelchair user John Morris, who runs advice site Wheelchair Travel, says: “Seattle’s geography, with changes in elevation, sidewalk and street grade on a block-by-block basis, often make it difficult to navigate in a wheelchair. AccessMap combines grade measurements with information on construction-related street closures and the condition of sidewalks to plot the most accessible course, pursuant to the user’s needs. I would like to see AccessMap included as part of a holistic accessible route planner that includes the city’s public transportation services in building the most effective journey. Pairing AccessMap with the city’s route planner tool or with transit directions from Google Maps would make getting around Seattle easier for people with disabilities.”

Steve Lewis, a 69-year-old manual wheelchair-user who has helped co-design the Seattle technology, adds: “I spend a lot of time in downtown Seattle and am well aware of what a barrier the hills are to wheelchair travel. I have learned from experience how to navigate the downtown corridor. The best routes for someone in a wheelchair will take advantage of elevators in buildings entering on one street and exiting several stories higher on the adjacent street. AccessMap is an effort to automate and make accessible the knowledge I have acquired through experience. It currently shows graphically the steepness of the terrain. The Taskar Centre is involved in a major effort to automatically display the best routes for wheelchair users with knowledge of elevators and mass transit including the hours they are available.”

Through its related OpenSidewalks project, the Taskar Centre is developing a system to crowdsource extra information like pavement width, or the location of handrails. Nick Bolten, AccessMap and OpenSidewalks project technical lead, says: “AccessMap tackles a neglected problem: how can you get around our pedestrian spaces, especially if you’re in a wheelchair? AccessMap lets users answer this question for themselves, and OpenSidewalks will help add the information they need.”

In another US-based project, this time in Sonoma, California, a $6.8m supported-housing project, Sweetwater Spectrum, is a pioneering example of autism-friendly design. Autistic people can be hypersensitive to sound, light and movement, and become overwhelmed by noisy, cluttered or crowded spaces. However, the scheme is designed according to autism-specific principles recommended by Arizona State University. The complex, which opened in 2013, includes four 4-bed homes for 16 young adults, a community centre, therapy pools and an urban farm – all designed by Leddy Maytum Stacy Architects.

Noise is minimum thanks to quiet heating and ventilation systems and thoughtful design – like locating the laundry room away from the bedrooms. Fittings and décor reduce sensory stimulation and clutter, with muted colours, neutral tones and recessed or natural light used rather than bright lighting. Marsha Maytum, a founding principal at Leddy Maytum Stacy, says the design “integrates autism-specific design, universal design and sustainable design strategies to create an environment of calm and clarity that connects to nature and welcomes people of all abilities”.

And there’s another great project from Leddy Maytum Stacy in nearby Berkeley, the Ed Roberts Campus, “a national and international model dedicated to disability rights and universal access”. The fully accessible building, named after the pioneering disability rights activist Ed Roberts, is home to seven disability charities, a conference, exhibition and fitness spaces, plus a creche and cafe. Features include a central ramp winding up to the second floor, wide corridors and hands–free sensors and timers to control lighting.

Ed Roberts Campus – a fully accessible building iN Berkeley (pic: Leddy Maytum Stacy Architects)

No city is wholly accessible and inclusive, but there are groundbreaking examples leading the way – and we just need more of them.

Read the full piece in the Guardian here.

Campaigner Jonathan Andrews on the talents and skills of autistic people

Jonathan Andrews was once advised to hide his autism from prospective employers. Instead, he is making his name by doing just the opposite.

The 22-year-old recently won campaigner of the year at the European Diversity Awards 2016 and talked to me about his work for a Guardian interview.

He’s involved in a plethora of awareness-raising projects, including sitting on the first parliamentary commission on autism. He also advised the government on its green paper on work, health and employment, which is out to consultation until later this month.

The graduate, who is an academic high-flyer, starts a trainee solicitor role later this year. He believes a law career will enable him to create practical change, but says combining law with campaigning is crucial. As he explains: “There is only so far legislation can go…you need to be winning hearts and minds to get change.” For his views on work and disability, see the full interview here.

He credits his family for their supportive role in his campaigning and he speaks powerfully about how his younger brother defended him against school bullies (“It was words like ‘retard’”). Jonathan stressed that it was in fact his brother who found it harder to deal with the verbal abuse: “I developed a thick skin, people used to tease me, but I always felt there would always be people like that and it was best not to focus on them. I came out in a better state than my brother, because I could shut it out and carry on – but for people who love you, it [trying to rise above verbal abuse directed at a relative] can be harder.”

An autism diagnosis at nine was, he says, useful in understanding his needs, but some of his parents’ friends reacted with sympathy. “The instant reaction was ‘I’m so sorry’. My mum would say ‘why?’ She said ‘my son hasn’t become autistic because of this diagnosis – it lets me understand it [autism] better; he’s always been my boy and is the same person he always was’.”

What struck me about Jonathan’s work – aside from the huge amount of awareness-raising at such a young age – is that he works on a range of diversity issues; along with autism, he raises awareness of mental health issues and LGBT equality. For example, he’s launching a best practice autism toolkit with the Commonwealth disability working group in April and hosting a related Commonwealth Day event in March.

He is also involved in promoting LGBT rights as co-founder of professional network the London Bisexual Network, challenging the idea that an autistic person “is not a sexual being because you are somehow ‘other’”. He adds of his campaigning on autism as well as LGBT issues: “People often think with autism you have to be interested in one thing and this means that you are great in one area and terrible at everything else.”

He also works to educate young people about domestic violence. He explains: “When I was child and I saw something that was wrong, I wanted to correct it and when I see something that is blatant injustice I just want to do what I can to help…[with domestic violence campaigning] I know what is is like to have a stable family, family that loves you, and I want others to be able to experience that.”

In fact, his broad range of campaigning interests reflects the change in attitudes which he is trying to achieve through his work: “People often think with autism you have to be interested in one thing and this means that you are great in one area and terrible at everything else.

The full interview is here.
You can follow Jonathan on Twitter @JonnyJAndrews

New campaign for autism-friendly libraries

Brody Ginn, who features in a training video to help create a network of autism-friendly libraries (pic: Dimensions)
Brody Ginn, in a still shot from a training video shot at Chelmsford library – the video is part of a new initiative to create a network of autism-friendly libraries (pic: Dimensions)

“Please be friendly and non judgemental. Don’t be shocked if I’m noisy and unpredictable. Smile, and please be nice to my mum, going out can be stressful for us all!”

“This is the way I am and sometimes I find it difficult not to talk to myself in the library so please be patient with me. Don’t keep staring at me. Please be kind to me.”

“Sometimes I can be noisy but I don’t like noise. Please don’t shush me or ask me to leave. These things hurt my feelings and can make me noisier. Be patient. Maybe even provide a small sensory room with soundproofing so I can calm down safely without causing problems with noise in your quiet library.”

These are among the comments made by people with autism as part of research that has led to a new campaign, launched today, for a network of autism-friendly libraries.

As I explain in a piece for the Guardian, a survey of 460 people with autism and their families by social care provider Dimensions suggests that 90% of people with autism would use their library more if adjustments were made.

Responding to concerns, Dimensions and the Association of Senior Children’s and Education Librarians (ASCEL) are collaborating to develop a network of autism-friendly libraries. The aim of the initiative – which is launching at the annual seminar of the Society of Chief Librarians – is to turn England’s 3,000 or so public libraries into more welcoming venues for people who have autism.

A poster available as part of the autism-friendly libraries campaign
A poster available as part of the autism-friendly libraries campaign

The drive, backed by £7,000 from the Arts Council, includes free resources for staff such as training videos, fact sheets, posters and social stories (short, informative descriptions of situations, so people know what to expect when they visit). The work in libraries builds on the model already developed by Dimensions with cinemas,

Being judged, being stared at or told to be quiet are among the main reasons people with autism and their families avoid going to their local library. “Libraries are quiet places so my son could make a noise and I would know others weren’t judging me as a parent,” as one parent told researchers developing the campaign.

In the current funding climate, with cutbacks to services and a downturn in borrowing, it makes financial sense to cater to more people, as well as creating a wider social benefit and encouraging inclusion and equality.

Libraries should be open to all sections of our communities, or as one person with autism explained about the experience of visiting the library: “Don’t tell me to shh! Or look at me like I am a criminal”.

* For more information about autism-friendly libraries follow #autismlibraries on Twitter or check the ASCEL or Dimensions websites

An invisible population: older people with autism

A resident of Hinnerup Kollegiet, a Danish community of older people with autism (pic: Hinnerup Kollegiet)
A resident of Hinnerup Kollegiet, a Danish community of older people with autism (pic: Hinnerup Kollegiet)

Timothy Baron was among the first children in the UK to be diagnosed with autism just over 50 years ago. Timothy was in need of specialist education but autistic children then had no right to schooling, so his father, Michael, opened his own school, the movement became the Society for Autistic Children – now the National Autistic Society (NAS).

That was the 1960s; today, Timothy, who lives in residential care, is nearing 60. The first generation of children to be diagnosed with autism is now moving into older age. Ageing with autism brings not only the particular challenges of the condition – communication, social interaction or sensory issues – but the social, physical and mental health issues often experienced in old age.

Policymakers are aware of the impact on society of the ageing population, but the same focus has not been given to people with learning disabilities and autism.

Read the rest of my piece about the need for more work on autism and growing older in the Guardian’s social care pages.