Last September, I voluntarily attended Building Construction and Authority’s (BCA) Certification Course for Universal Design (UD) Assessors (5 th Run) wanting to increase my knowledge in UD and the UD Mark scheme. All sounded technical. Little did I know that I would be going through a course that would touch my heart.
I was half an hour late for the first lecture because I had to attend to something in the office. The lecturer was in the middle of delivering on the topic of Understanding Human Abilities. He spoke well, operated the PowerPoint slides on his laptop smoothly and alternated between sitting behind the desk and standing up some distance away from it. But why had he put on tiny earphones?
It was only during tea break that I gathered from my course mates that the lecturer Asst Prof Wong Meng Ee was visually impaired. This was conveyed to the class right from the start and Prof Wong had to be oriented to the layout of the room. How remarkable it was that I missed this part, attended two-thirds of the lecture and had not realized Prof Wong was visually impaired. He had done extremely well to be totally independent in giving the lecture, relying only on audio signals through the tiny earphones to guide him in projecting the right slides at the right time.
Design with Details in mind
Such little devices help people with disabilities. And when lots of attention is given to the design of even the little parts of a building with UD as the guiding light, it will enable the building to be usable to the greatest extent possible by people of all ages and abilities – young and old, with or without physical and mental impairment, pregnant women, and families. This beautiful concept ran through all that we were taught throughout the course.
One particularly memorable segment was the Immersive Learning Session most expertly conducted by Ms Judy Wee and Mr Patrick Ang, both wheelchair-bound. The participants were given a chance to experience different types of disabilities. We covered our eyes with eye masks and tried to walk with the aid of white canes; we taped some of our fingers together and tried to pick up things; we put harnesses around our legs and tried to negotiate steps; we sat on wheel chairs and tried to move on ramps, opened doors, and transferred ourselves to and from toilet seats. It was a most touching experience as going through these activities helped us to truly empathise with fellow humans with impairments. Our temporary disabilities made us realise just how difficult it is to perform such tasks, and led us to appreciate why the Code on Accessibility in the Built Environment gives certain basic standards, and ponder on how good it would be if we could go beyond the basic standards to make our built environment wonderfully inclusive.
Design with Improvements in mind
Armed with such first-hand experience, knowledge imparted by dedicated BCA officer Ms Goh Siam Imm and her team on the Code and UD Mark scheme, as well as an awareness of fine cases of UD considerations and execution in projects shared by enthusiastic architects, we went round in groups to assess the UD aspects of various existing buildings in Singapore critically as part of our course work.
It was with an entirely fresh perspective that I evaluated the building of our group’s choice - never before had I been able to see inadequacies of UD details so easily. I wished that the designer had thought a little harder to get them right. Often it is not a matter of having to spend extra money to achieve that, but to have that UD sensitivity coupled with creativity to do so. Take signages for example: we saw in our chosen building signage with patterned background which might have added visual interest but detracted greatly from the main messages. Even persons with perfect eyesight would find such signage difficult to read. It would certainly be possible to do signage that is clearly legible to even the aged, at the same time attractive.
Design from the Heart
To me the best UD proposals must start from the heart, before considering the know-hows and the Code. Once we have the right motivation to want to enable people of all ages and abilities to use our building to the greatest extent possible, we will be able to think through the concept right down to the details and provide creative solutions, to even go beyond the code. May this BCA Course continue to run and touch the hearts of as many professionals as possible, all for the good of our built environment and its users.