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Inclusive Wayfinding Design

Historically inclusive design has tended to focus on visual or mobility impairments, with minimal consideration for neurodiversity or hidden disabilities. Thanks to a series of high-profile campaigns by a number of charities and support organisations, things are changing. In the wayfinding world, the successful accessible toilets campaign by Crohn’s & Colitis UK is one that comes to mind. However we need to move beyond the mindset that inclusive design is about catering for 20% of the population with a diagnosed disability. The reality is that most of us are likely to be affected by physical, sensory or cognitive impairments during our lifetime
Examples of different inclusive design initiatives focussed on invisible disabilities

Examples of Initiatives Designed to Make the Invisible Visible

Designing for Neurodiversity & Hidden Disabilities

Historically inclusive design in wayfinding has tended to focus on visual or mobility impairments, with little consideration for neurodiversity or hidden disabilities. Thanks to a series of high-profile campaigns, such as the accessible toilets campaign by Crohn’s & Colitis UK; and Autism Hour, the initiative promoted by The National Autistic Society, things are changing. To be truly inclusive, the wayfinding design community is increasingly recognising they need to consider the information requirements and communication preferences of a much wider constituency. 

The Opportunity

Before we move on to discussing how we go about embracing a more diverse set of needs and the challenges, here’s a reminder about why it’s important.

  • 1 in 5 of the UK population has a disability – that’s 13 million people.
  • 2 in 3 of these is invisible – which means that 9 million people have a hidden disability.
  • With our ageing population these figures will keep on growing.

The 1 in 5 figure is for people that have a diagnosed disability. However, a third of the population will experience short-term impairments due to illness, injury or temporary conditions. For example, expectant mothers, people undergoing cancer treatment or those recovering from a major operation or trauma. Not all of these impairments will be obvious.

And unless you’re completely unflappable, there will be incidences when all of us will succumb to temporary cognitive impairments. Think back to any time when you were running very late for a meeting, a flight or the start of show. As we start to panic, our ability to process information decreases. We’re so distracted by the consequences of being late, that we can’t focus fully on reading maps or listening to directions; and struggle to retain information. 

The Inclusive Wayfinding Design Challenge

We need to move away from the idea that inclusive design is about meeting the needs of 20% of the population with a diagnosed disability. Everyone is likely to be impacted by physical, sensory and or cognitive impairments at various times in their life. So inclusive design is truly about designing for all.

Unfortunately, there is no one size fits all solution. Adopting approaches that suit one community may impact negatively on another. Those of us who have difficulties in retaining information will struggle to navigate, if the wayfinding information is limited to a single welcome sign map or plan and may appreciate a member of staff showing us the way. However a wayfinding strategy that relies on interacting with customer service staff, will be challenging for anyone with impaired communication skills.

An older person or someone recovering from an illness or injury may want to know where they can find public seating to take a break. Someone on the autistic spectrum – a quiet space to take some time out. Including information to meet all anticipated needs on one map will compromise its legibility and risks serving no one.

The Solution

The answer is to take a multi-layered approach. This means investing in a variety of formats – signage, printed leaflets, customer service staff and apps. Ensuring that you test the design with a diverse audience. But we also have to accept that despite best endeavours, we’re unlikely to satisfy all of the people all of the time.