Blog post: Graham Findlay

How many times do you feel genuinely excited by a TV programme? Me neither. But slumped on the sofa after a long day labouring over a luke-warm policy paper, I recently had the great good luck to click on Channel 4’s George Clarke’s Amazing Spaces.

For those who don’t know, George is an architect with a penchant for the quirky. According to the blurb, he explores the extraordinary world of small builds, where people turn tiny spaces into the most incredible places to live, work and play. This programme featured Sam Mildon, a young disabled guy who uses a big powered wheelchair. Sam wanted to go to festivals, explore the world, do stuff he wanted to do – like most people in his age group. He didn’t like or want, and couldn’t afford, an unwieldy production-built accessible mobile home. And as a dedicated conservationist, he wanted to have a vehicle that was as sustainable as possible. So he decided to build his own mobile wagon, and with very little help from George. And it is the most awesome, amazing thing I’ve seen for a very long time. Why?

It’s user-led design that works: Sam knew what he wanted to build, how it should work and how it shouldn’t work in terms of his personal accessibility requirements. And most importantly, he had total control over the process.
It’s about self-determination in a very real sense: Sam wanted to fully participate in a lifestyle of his choosing, and knew the only way to do it to his liking was to build his own solution. That’s what I call empowerment.
It happily integrates inclusive design with sustainability: these two ways of seeing the world are often framed as unrelated, but desperately need linking up, so it’s fantastic to see a tangible example of how they can both work well together – they are complementary, not oppositional.
It’s been designed, built and part-funded cooperatively: the self-build was a great example of harnessing the power and support of the community – friends and family, of course, but also mates who knew about design and supporters across the globe through crowdfunding.
It’s really good value for money: the extra costs of disability are well-known, as is the disability premium hiked on to specialist products. Sam showed how a beautiful solution doesn’t cost the earth.
It looks absolutely brilliant and does the job: accessibility and functionality are often depicted as painted in battleship grey – dull and uninspiring. Sam’s project demonstrated the precise opposite.
All these things made me think of DRILL, as it seems to encapsulate the core idea of what the programme should be all about, but perhaps without the accompanying research jargon.

Something that is genuinely innovative, something that raises aspirations, something that solves a problem elegantly, something that doesn’t break the bank, something that actually works because it’s user-led from the start and harnesses other people’s expertise and is a catalyst for community spirit. And that rarest thing, something that makes you feel warm inside for all the right reasons.

For me, DRILL’s essence is all about participation, and this little project symbolised that idea – not only about participating in community and social life, but on a micro level shifting attitudes about localised economic participation and marrying big ideas like accessibility and sustainability, but in a very demonstrable way. And probably most importantly of all, it made jaded old me genuinely excited.

As researchers, sometimes it helps to look obliquely at non-research related nuggets like Sam’s accessible wagon and daydream a bit, get inspired and make connections. I hope you’ll be able to watch the programme to feel the excitement – and, yes, inspiration – yourself if it’s still available on All 4. If nothing else, it’ll make you grin. And if you want to start envisioning better futures for disabled people, that’s not a bad place to start.

George Clarke’s Amazing Spaces can be viewed here:

Graham Findlay is co-chair of the Wales National Advisory Group and a disability equality and inclusive design consultant.

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