Universal design should leave nobody out
Asia-Pacific, Universal Design, January 16 2017
SINGAPORE: Senior architectural designer Richard Kuppusamy cuts an unusual sight in busy construction sites when he navigates expertly past enormous cranes and trucks, manoeuvres around floors scattered with various tools, and even gets on temporary hoists – in his wheelchair.
Born with spina bifida – a congenital spinal cord defect which leaves him paralysed from the waist down – Mr Kuppusamy has been in the construction industry for over 11 years and has never once been refused entry on site, even though he has drawn curious looks.
“There’s been (times) when the lift wasn’t ready yet, but it was never a matter of ‘we’re not providing access’ for you… And that willingness to do things has made it possible for me to work in this industry,” the 40-year-old told.
This willingness to provide access to him across the company’s front door as a wheelchair user, and the availability of a wheelchair accessible toilet, were the key questions he had for potential employers in 2012 when he considered returning home to be closer to his parents after spending 16 years in the UK training and working as an architect.
“Call me arrogant if you like… I knew my business and I knew I have skills to offer any employer… But I also knew my future is limited by my accessibility,” said Mr Kuppusamy, whose portfolio includes specialist emergency care hospitals, universities, retail and commercial developments, and even the BBC Scotland headquarters.
In the end, he joined architecture firm WOHA Architects, whose management spent S$109,070 retrofitting their shophouse office with ramps, stair lifts and renovated the toilets to make the workplace accessible for him, shared WOHA co-founder Wong Mun Summ.
Jokingly, Mr Kuppusamy said he has since become the “poster boy” for this concept of “universal design”, which is the cornerstone of his work and something he tries to incorporate into local projects that he has worked on, including new generation public housing projects like SkyVille@Dawson and Kampung Admiralty, the upcoming 11-storey integrated development in Woodlands.
These have lush sky terraces that double up as “outdoor living rooms” for the community to gather, flat pathways and handrails, as well as Braille and colour contrasts on signage.
Beyond building ramps, he said universal design is about designing with “people” as the priority, and making it intuitive so that everyone, be it young mothers with prams or the elderly, is able to enjoy the environment.
To that end, he trains himself in understanding other people’s disabilities and needs as well. Good design, he said, is the key to social inclusion as people with disabilities would have more chances to come and interact with society.
“Building owners don’t take the needs of disabled people seriously because they say there aren’t enough people with disabilities to matter. But people with disabilities aren’t getting out of their homes and into the shopping mall or cinema because it’s those building owners who aren’t doing enough to make their premises accessible. It’s all a vicious cycle that needs to be turned around,” he said.
In fact, part of the reason why the Singaporean, who became a wheelchair user in his early 20s, was hesitant to return home five years ago was because he felt here, he has to fight for even the most basic rights like equal access.
It is times when a van driver occupies his disability parking lot to unload his goods without apologising, a sales assistant speaking only to his girlfriend while they are out shopping, or the handicapped toilets in malls are occupied by able-bodied people who just wanted “a larger room” that Mr Kuppusamy feels disabled.
Having spent most of his life growing up in what he called “more enlightened” countries like New Zealand, the United States and Switzerland because of his father’s overseas posting, he was never given any special treatment in all the mainstream schools he attended, save for a few minutes extra to move between classes.
“I never got siloed into a special needs school. After all, I don’t have special needs. My physical disability doesn’t define who I am or what I am capable of doing,” he said, adding his decision to become an architect came about after a family friend’s suggestion and a desire to put his practical nature and love for problem-solving to good use.
Since coming back, while he noted that Singapore has made big strides in improving accessibility, he urged for more to be done to ensure a more proportionate number of accessible homes, parking, and toilets, and for solutions not to be tacked on just as an afterthought.
He said design here is still geared towards enabling caregivers to give assisted care instead of helping disabled people to lead independent lives. For example, putting enough knee-space under sinks in apartments would allow wheel-chair users to do their own dishes instead of relying on others.
But the biggest barrier to accessibility remains Singapore’s me-first attitudes and mentality, he said. People need to put aside their personal agendas to “work towards a more humane society”.
For now, the captain of the Singapore Wheelchair Rugby team and executive committee member of the Handicaps Welfare Association, is doing what he can to drive causes he is passionate about.
Counting himself as a “uniquely lucky case”, Mr Kuppusamy said that what keeps him going is the mantra of leading to serve. “I’ve made my own opportunities where I can, and I have a duty like everyone else to give a little something back. I realised very early on that if I want change, I need to be the one driving that change,” he said.