Mei-Yee Man Oram

“It is not enough to provide a solution that is accessible; this needs to be inclusive to provide equity.”

Mei-Yee Man Oram leads Arup’s Accessible and Inclusive Environments team, specialising in inclusive design across a wide range of projects and sectors.

Can you tell us a bit about your background? How did you decide to work on the accessibility issues of the built environment?

I have always been interested in the built environment and the social impact this has on people. And so when I discovered that this was a career path that I could follow, I was delighted – it combined my passions in design / architecture, with social value

When did ARUP’s accessible and inclusive environments consultancy team formed? What is the difference between an accessible and inclusive environment?

The team formed over 20 years ago, and I have been working in the team for coming up 16 years now. It formed initially in response to the changes in legislation and regulation relating to accessibility, but our remit has evolved over the years to think much more holistically about design. Design that is inclusive is good design for everyone.

Our remit looks beyond accessibility – which for me, is about providing equivalents (e.g. an accessible pass door adjacent to a non-accessible revolving door). Instead, it looks at inclusion, which is about how we can provide equity (e.g. a sliding door that everyone can use, instead of needing to segregate users), which looks at both physical provision and the experience of the end users

How do you engage with the project design process? Are you invited at the beginning of the concept design phase or when everything is mostly defined?

It depends on the project, but the earlier that we are engaged, the more we can embed inclusion at the core of the project, both in terms of the process (e.g. in terms of incorporating user engagement, embedding inclusive design principles into the brief and key objectives), the design (from concept and spatial design, right through to the details of product selection, materials and finishes, fixtures and fittings, etc.) and the experience (in terms of operations and management, once the building is complete).

The earlier the engagement with different members of the team (client, architects, and other disciplines) and wider stakeholders (including the local authorities), the smoother the coordination will be as well. Inclusive design has overlaps with almost all of the disciplines in a design team, and so the sooner that this can be brought to the discussion at the table, the sooner we can all align and balance the different requirements across the project objectives. Similarly, the sooner that engagement with the community and local authority can happen in a project, the better integrated the needs of the end user will be in the proposals, and the more aligned it will be with the wider objectives.

Designing accessible and inclusive environments is not only related with anthropometric standards but requires a certain kind of sensitive approach to cultural differences. ARUP is a global consultancy firm and so you must have faced some challenges while working on projects in other countries with different cultures and social habits? Can you give us some examples?

Inclusive design is about both the physical, and the experiential aspects of design. It is also about recognising and celebrating the diversity of the communities we are designing for, which includes how people identify and their personal circumstances (including, but not exclusive to, disability, age, culture / race / religion, gender / gender identity).

Important to the process of inclusive design is the richness and diversity of perspective that is brought into the design:
(a) the diversity of the team; and
(b) the engagement with end users that reflect the community, and proactively seeks to listen to voices that are ‘harder to reach’ (I would argue that these are not typically harder to reach than anyone else, but that the methods of communication / reaching out are not inclusive).

It is important though, I believe, to challenge assumptions where we can; just because something has been traditionally designed in a particular way, or local culture has assumed a particular preference, does not mean that this is the best solution or that it cannot be designed in a way which respects culture whilst improving the space for other groups at the same time. Similarly, it is important not to assume that something in one region is the right thing to do across the globe. Communication and engagement, to really understand the specific context, is key.

It is also important to recognise that the codes and guidance on accessibility and inclusive design are based on average data in a particular point in time. Therefore, in order to understand actual experience, and any outliers to the averages assumed, engagement and ongoing awareness and research into emerging trends is really important to create spaces that are suitable for changes in needs over time.

Architects feel a bit confused on the scope of sustainability, inclusive environment, accessible design and well-being consultants. The emerging certificates for each of these areas also make it hard to grasp the extent of the domains of each. How do you differentiate your scope from a WELL Certification Consultant for instance?

Our scope – inclusive design – is about placing people first in the design. And so there will be overlaps. But this is why early integration into the team, and coordination across disciplines is really important. Our job is to understand the objectives from other disciplines (whether functional, form, or in relation to the certifications that you mention), and to work with them to identify opportunities for inclusion, making spaces more resilient to changes across different stages of life, empowering communities and providing a sense of ownership of spaces, etc.

In August 2020, the UK government announced new rules allowing existing commercial properties, including vacant shops to be converted into residential housing more easily, expanding the permitted development rights. What would be the implications of these new rules in terms of accessibility of the existing built environment.

There needs to be a recognition of the fact that existing building stock, and the level of accessibility and inclusion that this provides, will vary substantially. Therefore, we need to ensure that there is provision for accessible housing and to identify where appropriate remedial works are required, especially when thinking about the ageing population, demographic changes relating to size / shape of people, use of assistive equipment, etc.

What was the most challenging or interesting project you have worked on? Why?

There are many to choose from, but I have a current project with a global retailer which is particularly enjoyable at the moment. The client attitude exemplifies the spirit of inclusive design and the desire to be ‘best in class’, in order to set an example to customers and colleagues; increase opportunities for employment across different demographic groups; increase enjoyment of their stores.

Working towards a common goal and using that to champion innovation in this area is really exciting, and I am really looking forward to seeing these new store designs launched.

COVID-19 started to shape our built environment in unprecedented ways. How can ARUP’s accessibility and inclusive design department help architects and city councils during these changes?

Achieving equity in our buildings, spaces and communities is a complex challenge. Without question, there is vast room for improvement when it comes to not only designing and operating equitable spaces, but also for ensuring these efforts are reaching those who need it most. While data is still emerging, numbers thus far are placing certain demographics among those hardest hit by COVID-19. Marginalized groups already struggling with reduced employment opportunities, lower wages and unstable economic security have become even more at risk in today’s world.

As we begin our return to the workplace, restaurants, places of worship and retail shops, we must remember that not everyone will be embarking on the same journey. Individuals with chronic and underlying health conditions will remain more at risk. Remote work and schooling are not readily available for those without the financial capacity to secure laptops or high-speed internet. And many will risk increased rates of exposure by continuing to rely on public transit as their sole means of transportation. With this challenge comes the opportunity to reframe expectations for how design can better support equitable and inclusive environments, and we (as access and inclusive design consultants) and the wider industry have a responsibility to work together to rebuild more inclusively in a post pandemic world.

For further insight on the topic, you can read a recent article co-authored by Mei-Yee Man Oram, about using Universal Design approach for creating equitable spaces after COVID-19.