3 DEC 2020
RICS is committed to ensuring that the profession is more diverse and inclusive across all areas, one area that can often be overlooked is disability. George Hooton, from the Bristol based firm Hootons Commercial, discusses his experiences of disability in the Property Industry.
With a greater focus on diversity and inclusion than ever before, now is the perfect time to bring the discussion of disability to the forefront. While the importance of gender equality and the representation of ethnic minorities within the property industry have had significant advancements, little progress has been made in the area of disability.
Through my professional experiences and personal circumstances I have come to realise the power of the built environment in alleviating and exaggerating disability. While some countries have done a great job of integrating accessibility into buildings and public transport, it seems the UK is in danger of falling behind.
By underappreciating or ignoring inclusive design, and therefore the demands of the elderly and disabled, until only recently, we now have a built environment that is largely inaccessible to millions of people. The implications of this are vast and severe, impeding on basic rights, causing isolation, disenfranchisement with society, and further unnecessary mental and physical health issues.
As a result of misguided perceptions and a lack of awareness, those with disabilities have been ignored, persecuted and discriminated against throughout history. The implications of this have translated into the built environment over time, whether consciously or not, resulting in the direct limitation of public participation. This has been perpetuated by a lack of medical research and technological advancements, which have limited the ability to overcome outdated and often protected physical obstacles.
In the UK we have all the elements available to solve an issue like this, discrimination laws, building regulations, a large tech sector, and the trappings of being the sixth largest economy in the world. Yet, despite this, personally I still cannot access a significant proportion of trains, offices and shops, without the assistance of others.
As briefly mentioned, the implications of negative perceptions around disability and a largely inaccessible built environment are massive, with social, political and economic ramifications, both for those 14.1 million people in the UK with a disability and those without (Scope, 2020).
In today’s society we are now starting to appreciate the various benefits of diversity and inclusion in the workplace but there is still a great deal of discrimination and bias. According to government statistics, disabled people are over a third less likely to be employed and significantly more likely to experience unfair treatment at work (Office for National Statistics, 2019).
Over a quarter of disabled people say that they do not frequently have choice and control over their daily lives, with around a third experiencing difficulties accessing public, commercial and leisure goods and services (Gov.uk, 2014). As a result of these barriers, disabled people can only freely shop in certain places, work in particular offices and attend specific social events.
While looking for residential accommodation myself I have seen first-hand how difficult it is, with the vast majority of premises provided without step free access or lifts. More unsettling, when working for a residential developer I realised that only a small proportion of new builds had to provide disabled access. This to me highlighted a structural issue with accessible design, seeing it more as a quota to be met where necessary and less of an obligation to uphold and maximise where possible.
For those without a disability, it is important to realise no one is immune to injury or accidents and everyone living long enough will eventually grow old, so while this may not be impacting you now it very easily could in the future. Making this a universal issue.
As the title suggests, where the property industry can start its efforts in promoting diversity and inclusion, is the changing of commonly held perceptions around disability.
Anyone can build a ramp, but how do you stop entrenched and often subconscious biases?
We work in an industry where the heterogeneity of properties is seen as advantageous, highlighting its individual character and making our jobs much more interesting, but we don’t necessarily see that when it comes to people.
When looking for synonyms for disability words like defect, affliction, incompetence and weakness are among the first to come up. Instead greater recognition should be given for natural skills and qualities commonly shared by those with disabilities, such as critical thinking, problem solving, reliability and resilience.
Evidence from numerous studies suggests that people with a disability typically take fewer days off, stay in their job longer, boost staff morale and increase teamwork. Research has also repeatedly shown that more diverse, inclusive and balanced businesses also perform much stronger, highlighting the benefits for the organisation as well as society.
Once perceptions change within the industry, greater representation will follow, allowing for a better insight into the adaptations required for a fairer future.
Having discussed these issues with a wide variety of people, it is clear most are conscientious and appreciative of these struggles but are unsure what they can do to help.
As members of the property industry, we can place greater emphasis on accessibility when buying, selling, managing and developing properties, by identify those barriers and clearly labelling them for stakeholders. This may come in the form of additional training or accessibility audits.
Ultimately, by tackling discrimination and alleviating the physical obstacles of the built environment, we can level the playing field for millions of people in this country and ensure continued freedom in old age. To do this, we need to raise awareness for the issue, be more conscious of the struggles of others and become advocates and ambassadors for equal access, for all.