The Straits Times says

Making spaces friendly to all users

The common vision of an inclusive society will not be advanced if the built environment limits the range of people who are able to use it easily. Historically, spaces were designed with cost, specific purposes, traditional standards or looks as prime considerations. User involvement, ergonomics and anthropometrics were generally deemed luxuries; equal access and enjoyment were seen as a liberal indulgence. Budgets had to be met strictly so public amenities could be speedily erected to compensate for an earlier failure to cater to basic social needs. In the private sector, designs of buildings were dictated largely by commerce, with little or nary a thought for those who would struggle to gain access.

The roots of designs to create a better world, espoused by the influential Bauhaus school of design, are 100 years old but, alas, the implementation of that vision is still a work in progress. User-friendly designs have been promoted progressively here over the years with cost and practical considerations in mind. New buildings are already required to comply with the requirements of universal design that caters to all. Under a new rule affecting commercial and institutional buildings slated for any addition or alteration work, the owner must ensure entrances are barrier-free (for example, by providing a ramp, stair-lift or platform lift) and at least one accessible toilet must be offered.

Laws were introduced over 25 years ago to make new buildings barrier-free. Still, about a quarter of existing commercial and institutional buildings are still not accessible. Building owners have little excuse to balk at such improvements as they can tap a state fund which subsidises up to 80 per cent of the cost of basic accessibility features and 40 per cent of additional features. Disappointingly, only $14 million of the $40 million fund has been used so far. Some might continue to drag their feet over such social necessities but there's no delaying the inevitable ageing of Singapore's population. Without universal access to spaces, seniors will find it difficult to "age in place" and might be cut off from family and social contacts, as well as from the larger community. That would reduce their quality of life.

Public and private infrastructure must respond expeditiously to the changing needs of society. The Government has been playing a leading role in various ways, including expanding the retrofitting of older flats with elder-friendly features. Newer flats have lever taps and door handles which are easier for the aged to grasp, as well as large switches positioned at lower levels, within reach of wheelchair users. Similarly, the private sector ought to pay more attention to details so that all can use places easily. Integrating inclusive principles in the design of spaces is a tangible way of projecting the ethos of social cohesiveness.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 11, 2016, with the headline 'Making spaces friendly to all users'. Print Edition | Subscribe