Universal design and psychosocial disabilities

The COVID 19 pandemic has given rise to new thoughts about planning and design of the built environment including public transportation. People with psychosocial disabilities respond in different ways to situations. Travelling was easier for some because of less crowding, but others feared contamination. Facial masks increased anxiety in some, but others found that people not wearing masks a problem. This is where a universal design approach can help.

” … universal design should include the social and organisation environments, in addition to physical design, in terms of making the transport system accessible to everyone.”

A man stands on a train platform looking at his smartphone. He is wearing a hat and has a bright yellow backpack.

Between 20% and 25% of the population have a mental illness at any given time. People with psychosocial disabilities travel less than others leading to social isolation and worsening symptoms. The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that by 2030 mental health conditions will be the leading burden of disease.

Improving travel with universal design

Few studies include mental health with reference to universal design. Anja Fleten Nielsen’s study asks “How can a broad understanding of universal design be used to improve travel for people with psychosocial disability?” She investigated the impact of COVID-19 and the main barriers to using public transport.

Nielsen’s study involved in-depth interviews focusing on barriers, travel behaviour during the pandemic and suggested solutions. Recruiting participants was difficult in terms of getting written consent – signing a consent form could raise anxiety levels. Nielsen explains more about methods and the literature review.

The key results are fell into: physical environment, social environment, organisational environment, and individual aspects.

The roadway is marked with the words "bus stop" in yellow lettering.

Physical environment: Crowding, important information during the journey, lack of toilet facilities and sensory overload.

Social environment: Negative experiences with fellow passengers and interaction with transport personnel, and being afraid to ask for help.

Organisational environment: Availability and ease of access, and lack of seamlessness between modes with long waiting times.

Individual level: Planning difficulties, travel induced fatigue and financial barriers.

COVID-19 made barriers more apparent

Nielsen’s paper discusses each of the four aspects in detail. The pandemic increased symptoms in many participants and has made them more visible to transport planners. To answer the question about universal design, Nielsen claims that environmental factors are of greater importance. This is because the individual factors are related to special and customised solutions.

The title of the study is, Universal design for people with psychosocial disabilities – The effect of COVID-19.

Planners and designers need to look beyond physical impairments. Universal design is just as relevant for people with psychosocial disabilities. Social and organisational environments are of equal importance for this group. These are factors that also improve journey experiences for the travelling public.

From the abstract

During and after the pandemic, most informants travelled less and/or used their car more than before. Some stopped using public transport due to fear of contamination, while others found it easier to travel during the pandemic due to less crowding.

Use of facial masks were perceived by some as an additional problem increasing anxiety, while others found it more problematic with fellow passengers not wearing masks. In general, findings support prior studies in terms of barriers related to crowding, lack of seamlessness, financial issues, problems with staff, lack of access in rural areas, and low knowledge of support systems.

Lack of toilet facilities, negative experiences with other passengers, sensory overload, travel-induced fatigue, and problems related to planning are considered problematic. Station areas may pose a barrier for people with former drug addictions. Hence, universal design should include the social and organisation environments, in addition to physical design, in terms of making the transport system accessible to everyone.

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