Access for all

Using technology to create an inclusive environment

How accessibility means more than just installing a couple of wheelchair ramps.

"For me personally it's about being able to access the areas I want to access," disability advocate Mark Tomkins says. "When I go out for dinner with friends and family, my checklist of requirements is about five or six points longer than anyone else's.

"Most of the addition points relate to being able to physically access the built environment in my wheelchair. But it doesn't have to be that way." For Mark, a retired elite athlete who rolls around town in a wheelchair, having a detailed knowledge of his local area provides a level of comfort when getting around.

"What I don't have is that same level of information if I travel interstate or overseas. I have to travel blind and guess, if I don't have someone there on hand to provide me with some local knowledge."

To help others in a similar situation get from point A to point B, Mark joined a team of researchers from the University of Wollongong and set about to make the University campus more accessible for wheelchair users.



Mapping the way to inclusiveness

In late 2017 a pilot wheelchair mapping project was launched at UOW in partnership with Briometrix, a start-up that specialises in technology for wheelchair users, and the Digital Living Lab, an Internet of Things (IoT) initiative by UOW's SMART Infrastructure Facility.

The concept is simple: internet mapping technology is combined with physical activity monitoring devices for wheelchair users to create a new generation of accessibility mapping.

A team of wheelchair users wheeled their way around campus, collecting data that was then uploaded to the cloud through UOW's Digital Living Lab and Internet of Things network, allowing for wider information sharing throughout the community.

"Essentially this project combines Google Maps and Fitbits for wheelchair users," project lead Associate Professor Robert Gorkin III explains.

"Where other accessibility maps rely on topographical data, these maps will evaluate the routes metre by metre, considering gradients, surface, camber, barriers and the effort required by wheelchair users - everything that affects the difficulty of a route for a wheelchair user.

Associate Professor Gorkin, an academic at the Australian Institute for Innovative Materials as well as the first Researcher in Residence at iAccelerate, is involved in projects at the interface of emerging technologies, Industry 4.0 and social impact, and was responsible for helping link UOW and Briometrix.

"While wheelchair users are not a homogenous group, there's a variety of ages, capabilities and care needs to consider," Professor Gorkin says. "They are the critical community best positioned to evaluate accessibility, they live it every day.

"The information and insights they collect provide an opportunity to create accessibility solutions for all."

The pilot study produced maps that are colour-coded for effort - from Black (steep descent) to Purple (coasting), Green (easy level), Orange (incline), and Red (steep climb, may need assistance).

Associate Professor Robert Gorkin III. Photo: Paul Jones

For Mark, who has a background in town planning and experience in designing and building mobility maps, the new generation of accessibility mapping takes the guesswork out of getting around.

"While I'm quite high functioning in a wheelchair and can get myself out of tricky situations, there are plenty of people who aren't able to do so," he says.

The concept has since been rolled out in the wider Wollongong region thanks to a funding boost from Northcott Fundability, with the latest stage of the project focusing on the City of Wollongong and the creation of free online maps that will later become available via UOW and Briometrix's smartphone app for the wheelchair community.

UOW is the first university campus in Australia to have dedicated directional mapping for wheelchair users. Photo: Paul Jones

Supportive cities, happy citizens

A 2016 report by the United Nations, Good practices of accessible urban development, put forward several key recommendations for designing a worldwide New Urban Agenda, with the ultimate goal of achieving sustainable and inclusive development for all.

Recommendations included accessible housing and built infrastructures, accessible transportation and public spaces, promotion of accessibility as a collective good that benefits all, full and active participation of person with disabilities and accessible information and communication technologies for building inclusive, resilient and smart cities and communities.

Senior Professor Pascal Perez, Director of UOW's SMART Infrastructure Facility, firmly believes cities need to focus on the people in order to be truly accessible.

"Without people, a city is just a bunch of concrete, steel and asphalt," he says. Professor Perez, who has a particular research interest in urban liveability, smart cities and infrastructure, says technological solutions are needed to create liveable cities - but it's going to take more than just data and a couple of apps.

"Cities need to be functional, inclusive and kind to all its inhabitants. That means places where people can move around easily, find accessible and productive work, raise a family and enjoy their weekends."

Director of UOW's SMART Infrastructure Facility, Senior Professor Pascal Perez. Photo: Paul Jones

Creating a truly accessible city extends to more than just people with physical limitations. One in five Australians have some form of disability, and it's not just those bound to wheelchairs.

For some, bright lights and loud noises can be overwhelming and the hectic nature of our major cities can cause sensory overload. Supermarket giant Coles recently made headlines with their partnership with Autism Spectrum Australia, rolling out 'quiet hour' in select stores Australia-wide.

"We all have our own individual take on liveability, our own individual needs," Mark explains. "Most people understand visible disabilities, but there's a limited understanding of invisible disability, things like cognitive or sensory barriers."

Senior Professor Perez agrees that liveability and accessibility varies from one person to the next.

"The basic principles of liveability and accessibility apply to everyone, not just one group," Professor Perez says. "Making our cities liveable for those with different abilities ultimately is not simply about catering to the needs of a minority, but of changing the way all of us think about cities, liveability and disability."

When engineering meets best fit

In December 2017, construction commenced on a project that aims to revolutionise the way older people live. The Desert Rose, a collaboration between UOW and TAFE NSW, is a student-designed and built sustainable house that promotes wellbeing and adapts to the needs of its user.

"The project is unique in that it is designed to improve the quality of life of people living with age-related disabilities including dementia," Project Manager Clayton McDowell says.

Clayton, who is currently researching how to retrofit homes to reduce their energy and make them more comfortable and healthy to live in, says the project puts the needs of the user first - something that can be overlooked in modern design.

The Desert Rose project aims to revolutionise the way older people live.

"By considering user design not just for the present but over the duration of someone's life we can design the house to be easily adapted or retrofitted to meet many of the changes that a person may face as they age," he says.

"This is important as we are able to construct the house with little additions that will help to ensure the occupants continue to have a high quality of life as they continue to age."

The project came about as part of the Solar Decathlon Middle East 2018, an international competition that challenges teams to design, construct and operate solar powered houses that are sustainable, stylish and cost effective.

The team is focusing on creating a home that is dementia friendly as well as a net zero energy sustainable house that generates more electricity than it uses.

Construction of the house centres on a set of key design principles by UOW's Professor Richard Fleming, a psychologist with more than 30 years of experience working with the elderly, as well as innovations from UOW's Sustainable Buildings Research Centre (SBRC) and personal experiences from decathletes who have family members living with or caring for someone with dementia.

With so many different boxes to tick as part of the competition, the Desert Rose team set out to find clever design elements at a minimal cost.


Graphic by Desert Rose Graphic Designer, Jasper.

"We decided to go with a colour scheme that would improve the visibility of elements within the house, and change the layout slightly to provide line of sight to the bathroom which is especially helpful to someone who might need a gentle reminder," Clayton explains.

"A person's journey with dementia is unique for each individual and some elements of support may not be needed at the start of their journey but will be further along.

"This makes it difficult to cover off on every aspect, however, we have tried to predesign as many aspects into the house as possible so that it is either present or easily adapted to provide a supportive environment for people living with dementia if or when they require it."

Although the project is due to finish at the end of this year, with construction taking place in October and November 2018, the team hope to make a permanent mark on industry.

"We're trying to start a conversation in our construction industry about building for the future and the wellbeing of the occupants," he says.

"We hope that one day designing for wellbeing won't just be embedded into our construction codes and regulations, it will be embedded into our culture of design where it is simply a way of life for all elements of our built environment."

We built this city on kindness

Senior Professor Perez believes there is one element of smart cities that can't be forgotten about. "At the end of the day it's all about creating an inclusive and mindful environment for all of us. A smart city has to be a kind city," he explains.

"Sure, we can have a technology enabled city where big data can be processed by institutions and citizens to plan better, manage better and live better. We can also use universal design principles to better develop our cities.

"But we cannot expect creating a sustainable solution only by pouring money and technology into our cities, or expecting urban planners to come up with all the answers. The solution has to come from all of us.

"We need to reinvent the Greek concept of agora whereby the city belongs to its residents, who shape it and protect it."