Iris is an architect specializing in accessibility and inclusive design while coordinating the NGO she founded in 2015 – AMAIS. The NGO’s main focus is creating an equitable society for people with temporary, context based or permanent disabilities by applying the principles of inclusive design through: architecture, technology and social projects.
This interview was first published in Diversity Management in Romanian Organisations, 2nd edition, June 2023, Bucharest.
Iris, for someone unfamiliar with the term, what is inclusive design and what impact does it have on people’s lives?
Inclusive design is an ongoing process, an approach that reduces social segregation, stimulates empathy and the ability to listen to other people and understand their diverse needs. It challenges us to discover and overcome our biases. It requires an understanding that standards and norms are necessary and mandatory to know, while also accepting that our bodies, needs, and abilities are changing throughout our lives and rarely fit into a single box or category. It is a way of creating spaces, products, courses, apps etc. that are accessible and easy to use by a diverse range of users, regardless of abilities, age, gender, belief, race, social status without the need of special adaptations. It starts by identifying exclusion and involving people that have felt it in the process of identifying and implementing solutions.
You will find out more about the topic in the book we are publishing and launching this June, ‘’Inclusive Design: Empathy exercises’’. More information will soon be available on our blog.
Why did you choose inclusive design? On a first look, it seems to be a truly challenging field in Romania.
My interest in this topic started while I was in my last year of Architecture University, doing research for my diploma subject. I am a Millennial, so it is easy to understand the somewhat vigilante spirit that stimulated me to strive to find a topic that might have a beneficial impact on the community as a whole, something that I would be able to continue researching and working on even after finishing school. During a break from this research, I was taking a walk through one of Bucharest’s parks and I noticed a couple of blind people with their baby in a stroller. At that moment I realized that during my six years of university, the topic of designing for somebody who cannot see never came up. A lot of architects and designers like Juhani Pallasmaa or Kat Holmes raise the concern that a far too big amount of the contemporary world is built out of images and visual information, and that architecture has lost most of its complexity. This is something that I have also felt as a student. There is a lot of pressure to have great renderings, good looking iconic projects and not so much interest shown to other social and physical aspects of our projects. Back then, that was the day I realized that all the discussion we had in the design workshops about accessibility came down to ramps and, most of the time, at the very end of the project. Bringing not much joy to me or my colleagues. Thus, I started looking for as much information regarding people with disabilities and the involvement architects have on this topic. Quickly after, I discovered the isolation phenomenon that people with disabilities face in Romania due to at least two reasons. A subjective one – the attitudes of people without disabilities towards those with disabilities. People without disabilities tend to take too much pity on people with disabilities or they are too afraid to talk to the person or of the topic of disability, or even completely ignore the person or the topic. An objective one – the unfriendly or completely inaccessible built environment. Space is a powerful instrument that can amplify or limit abilities even where there is no disability certificate.
The objective reason is also the main one for starting AMAIS and getting involved in this field of inclusive design. As architects we are partly responsible for the situation we are in regarding the accessibility of the built environment, so, I see it as my direct responsibility to get involved in this and use my knowledge as a designer to reduce social segregation.
During a conference in 2022, you mentioned a lack of resources in inclusive design, from literature to specialised professionals to government support. Why do you think this is the case and what would it take to change that?
We are at the beginning in this process of improving accessibility in different fields. This is an opportunity, because we are starting this decades after other countries like the US, UK or Japan have already begun. The only problem is, there is no patience, and we are trying to skip important steps. People expect immediate results, although we do not have enough professionals with expertise in this field (for instance architects or IT engineers specialized in accessibility). We are more focused on the end results – the accessible environment – then on how we are supposed to get there. This is why I think we should take a step back and use this opportunity to learn from the experiences and obstacles that other countries faced along the way. We should first build a strong theoretical base and prepare professionals before expecting to see inclusive cities.
What is the difference between accessible and inclusive design?
Firstly, something that is accessible is not always inclusive, while something that is inclusive must be accessible and easy to use by a diverse range of people. For instance, standard tactile signaling improves orientation for people with visual impairment, but depending on how it is used, it can become an obstacle or create discomfort for parents with babies in a stroller, wheelchair users, people with balance issues and so on.
I think more important is the difference between accessibility retrofitting (which can be translated as ”accesibilizare” in Romanian) and inclusive design. The first is required by law and has standardized solutions that help improve accessibility of existing spaces, products, apps etc. through adaptations for people with permanent and temporary disabilities. The second is not required by law (for now at least in Romania), it does not have precise requirements like an accessibility norm has (for instance particular dimensions for circulation areas) or a standardized recipe to apply, it is more focused on understanding people’s needs, regardless of abilities, age, race, gender, social category, and involving them in the process of identifying solutions from the beginning of the project.
What would an inclusive designed workspace look like?
It would be a place where you can meet a diverse range of people, of different ages, abilities, genders, social categories that work together and feel welcomed, while also being directly involved in the development of that space. It is also, a place where people understand and accept that 100% inclusive does not exist for the moment, but that does not stop them to always try and understand the obstacles that other people might face and solve them together : )
What first steps can companies take towards embracing inclusive design in their offices?
The first step is recognizing exclusion. For that they can start by using forms or interviews/focus groups with their teams to understand the obstacles faced in their work environment. For better results I also recommend doing an accessibility analysis. They can find more info about these and how they could do them in our free guide, ‘’Public Spaces without Barriers’’.
Since the pandemic there’s been a preference towards working from home. How do you think an inclusive designed workspace would affect that choice and transform the working environment and human relationships?
Since there is no 100% inclusive right now, part of having an inclusive office culture is offering flexibility. Thus, hybrid working goes hand in hand with an inclusive mindset.
AMAIS, the NGO you founded, is an inspiring source of projects and services focused towards building an inclusive and equitable society. Can you share any examples of companies in Romania that have implemented inclusive design policies and practices?
DEI and more recently IDEA (Inclusion, Diversity, Equity and Accessibility) is clearly a worldwide trend right now. Thus, a lot of companies have started different programs related to this. I have not yet seen companies that are willing to invest in accessibility and inclusive design research like Google does in the US or UK, where they have accessibility hubs, or Microsoft, also in the US. Some companies that we know of that have taken steps towards this process are Kaufland, Google, Accenture, Societe Generale, ING Tech and NN.