Design and Innovation

Universal design: two Paralympians championing accessibility for all

James Millar and Nick Morris | 05 October 2022 | 26:00

Podcast Transcript: Universal design: two Paralympians championing accessibility for all

Maria Rampa: Hi I’m Maria Rampa and welcome to this episode of Engineering Reimagined.

We often think of accessibility challenges as having to do with disability, but it is so much broader than that. We will all experience accessibility issues at some point in our lives – as toddlers navigating stairs, as parents pushing prams, as visitors in a foreign country trying to read a street sign, as an elderly person struggling to open a door, or even just as someone needing a quiet space to clear our busy minds.

Thankfully, designers and planners are becoming much more cognisant of the need to design for accessibility. Catalysts such as major sporting events, like the Olympic and Paralympic Games, provide the perfect opportunities for designers and planners to create infrastructure that will not only meet the immediate needs of the event, but also go above and beyond, to leave a lasting legacy for the entire community.

In this episode of Engineering Reimagined, Aurecon's Lead Design Integrator and Paralympian skier, James Millar, speaks with Director at Morris Goding Access Consulting and Paralympic wheelchair basketballer, Nick Morris, about universal design and how the best accessibility solutions are often the ones we take for granted.


James Millar: Welcome to our podcast. Today, we're talking about universal design and accessibility. As one Paralympian talking to another, who both share a passion for universal design, it's great to be having this discussion. To set the scene, Nick, you became a paraplegic at the age of 16 after a motorcycle accident.

Nick Morris: The first thing people did while I was still in hospital on my back was actually bringing in magazines, a particular one called Sports N Spokes, which was about Paralympic sport and sport in general, to get my head around the idea that I wasn't going to walk out of that hospital room. A guy that I knew really well, he was a Paralympian, Michael McFawn. He came in, and he threw me a basketball top and said, “Congratulations, you've just been drafted to the wheelchair basketball team, hurry up and get going because we need you on the team.” Which was a really unique way to put it, but because I loved sport, it lit a fire in me that I could look forward to something.

James Millar: My story's a little bit different. I was born with congenital absence of my right forearm, basically, meaning that I was born without a right arm below the elbow. My birth disabilities, I like to call it, doesn't overly restrict me, say from navigating stairs, but it definitely poses challenges within everyday life, and even some of the most basic tasks like tying shoelaces, for instance, that's why I wear boots, carrying almost any object whilst trying to open the door. When people think about accessibility challenges and the opportunities that our various backgrounds bring to us and bring for us, they do tend to think about disability. I suppose now as a new parent, I start to think about accessibility as, what does it take to push a pram around? And it just gets you thinking about what Universal Design is in the modern world. So Nick, are you able to share some of the challenges that people with other accessibility challenges face when moving around?

Nick Morris: Well, it's a good point. I throw disability out the window, because it's just one form of accessibility. And I categorise people as having an accessibility need. Rod Laver Arena, they have two events that are the most accessibility challenging. One is Andre Rieu, who has a demographic of anyone over the age of 70. And then the next one is The Wiggles, where the demographic is under the age of five. And both of them are massive accessibility challenges - there's strollers, there's wheelchairs, there's walkers, there's capsules, there's pregnant women, there's nursing women, there's oldies with dementia, there's all these things. Yet, in one sense, they are so linked in what they need from accessibility. They need good ramps, they need light operating doors. They need open concourses; they need accessible toilets with baby change facilities in them; they need all these things that actually have not got a lot to do with disability. And that's where universal design is changing the way we think. Nike have just produced this brand new shoe that has no shoe laces, it actually kinks in the middle of the shoe and allows you to slide your foot in and out of it without touching the shoe.

James Millar: It's like Back to the Future.

Nick Morris: Well, it is. The iPhone is a classic example of a universal design, that anyone from a three-year-old up to a 95-year-old can use. And I'll give you another example, and you’ll relate to this directly, is how often we go to international competitions and the signage uses pictograms. Universal Language when language doesn't matter, that actually we can tell if we're looking to go to the toilet. It's a universal symbol. So, they're little things that make big differences.

James Millar: What is the role of a designer or an engineer or an advisor in promoting accessibility? Is it just making sure that a space can be used flexibly? Or is it how simple it is? Or intuitive? What are some of the elements that you see that we can play with within the toolbox to promote accessibility?

Nick Morris: I'm glad to use that word. It's a toolbox because that's exactly what it is. So, we start off with male and female toilets, then you talk about accessible toilets, and then you talk about gender neutral. And then we start talking about doors, and we talking about automated doors, and then we talk about floor coverings so that somebody who's blind can hear acoustically when they change from one surface to the next. Then we talk about changing places facilities for people who have high needs or a parents’ room. Then we start talking about multifaith areas, or quiet rooms, where all of a sudden, we can have an area that people are able to explore their faith or they've got a child who may have special needs, who they can take in there, and really just explore a bit of silence, or quite the contrary is that they want to take the child or themselves to an area where they want a different stimulation. So all of a sudden, when we're at concept and master planning stages, we aspire to what a space could look like. And that's when we do a lot of, with brand new facilities, and Australia's leading the world in this, in venue design. So, creating wellness hubs that really are just flexible spaces where people can go to as part of their journey and experience.

James Millar: There are the differences we see and the differences that we don't see. The Centre for Inclusive Design has a really interesting take on this, because the differences you see are age, gender, physical ability, race, or religion, but then the differences you don't see, there's over a dozen, which is; education, or heritage, or lived experience or personality, or skills or your values. And, I think the power in making sure that we design universally for everyone, is we consider as many of the things that we can see, along with as many of the things that we can't see.

Nick Morris: I'll give you a classic example, I think you’ve raised a good point, we're sitting at the front of a building, it's raining, it's a Friday night, we're waiting for an Uber. Is there a seat that we can sit that's well lit, that has a line of sight to where the Uber is? Does the Uber drop off have no curbs? Has it got a change in texture between the pathway and the roadway? What's the lighting like, would a female who's 20 feel safe there after 10 o'clock at night? They're all the things that are feelings and we create an environment of, as you say, things that technically are difficult to measure, but they really mean a lot to the way people feel around a building and an environment.

James Millar: Do you think there's a trend that the overarching accessibility of venues and public spaces is improving? What more do you think could be done to fast track some of that?

Nick Morris: I do. There's a number of organisations I work with, whether it be Marvel Stadium, Australia Post, or some of those big corporates who are now saying, we want to respond to universal design, we want a universal design policy. And when we design a new building or a fitout, we want any of the architects tendering or the design teams tendering to tell us how they're going to embrace universal design before we appoint them. So that's where people like you and I get on the team to be able to say, “Well, have you considered drinking fountains next to your workout areas?” Simple things like that, where so often we forget that people want to have a drink of fresh water that might be filtered next to a workout area.

James Millar: A lot of the time the solution to solving an issue of universal access, it's actually a really simple solution. Planting a tree to the north side of a seat provides shade in summer, planting a deciduous tree will then provide sun in winter. Some of the solutions aren't particularly complex, but if they're well thought through, they can make an absolutely massive impact to so many people. Touching on your point earlier about working with stadiums, the Olympics and Paralympics as an example of a stadium events mode, these are incredible places. One thing you learn, as an athlete, but also as a designer or a universal, accessible advocate, is that the design of these places can leave a legacy long after the event has finished. With Brisbane hosting the 2032 Olympic and Paralympic Games, there's a real opportunity for events like this to leave a legacy and to make the places in our cities more accessible. How can we actually use events like the 2032 Brisbane Olympic and Paralympic Games as a catalyst to creating a more accessible built environment?

Nick Morris: I can give you a really simple and classic example. And that is urinals in a male, and I spend way too much time talking about toilets, but they are the basics of human functionality and comfort. And so for example, urinals in amenities, in the male toilets, you don't put urinals in. So that should there be a female Australian championship at a venue, they can use any of the amenities and not feel like they're walking into a male toilet. You can technically change the sign on the door from being a male toilet to turn into just a toilet, anyone can walk in there. They're the things that are really important, is that we create flexible spaces. I walked through a fitout the other day. And somebody said to me, “So show me all the accessible features.” Before I even started, I said, “I'm sorry, I'm gonna be letting you down. Because it's all seamless, I don't want it to be seen, a lot of these features are just there.”

James Millar: In terms of universal design and accessibility, are they the same thing? Are they different?

Nick Morris: Well, universal design, I actually think there's three key terms that really can define it. Universal design is based on a set of seven principles. So, there's no technical requirements under universal design. It's all based on principles. And we now have a link to that, which is the eight goals of universal design. So universal design is principle based, so that it covers all gamut. With accessibility, that tries to bring in the technicalities of the standards, but also the reasonable adjustment and unjustifiable hardship clauses of the Disability Discrimination Act, that talks about dignity, equality, functionality, independence and safety of use. So, accessibility takes it that one step further to look at those elements to apply to the DDA, we need to think broader, and not just use one set of standards, we’ve got to use a number of set of standards. And then the last one is National Construction Code compliance. And so, every time we build a building, the building surveyor says, 'Well, unless you comply to a set of standards, I won't give you a building permit.” But the problem is that that's the base minimum, and not many people realise, but things like landscape aren’t included in NCC sign off, fitouts aren't included in NCC sign off, emergency evacuation for accessibility is not included in NCC. So we actually have three areas that we can slowly cascade down to provide a really future-proof building. And if you're doing NCC compliance as your minimum, it's exactly that. It's just minimal compliance. And the one example I will put out to everyone now who deals with buildings, is how you get someone out of a building during an evacuation who can't use stairs? Do they stay in a refuge, do they horizontally evacuate, do they use a lift once the fire brigade comes? Or is there dedicated area that they can go to? And right at point in time, dare I say it, 95% of buildings out there would not know how to do any of those things.

James Millar: Do you think there's an opportunity to amalgamate or make the myriad of standards and principles and objectives and building codes and national construction codes - do you think there is an opportunity to make them more universally accessible to everyone to understand, so there aren't as many gaps?

Nick Morris: Well, the answer's no, because that would do me out of a job. Confusion is good for business. The closer you get to construction finalisation, the less you're able to influence design, or the less you're able to influence operations of a building. So, it really is a case that the early we get in, the more we can amalgamate those standards and produce a planning report or a universal design report that the designers can pick up at any stage of construction and go, have I complied to this principle? Seamless movement is never a changing thing. So that's where we can really help, is to set goals and aspirations for a building, a development or an operation, that really sets a big benchmark, like sustainability, that does the same thing.

James Millar: How do you think sustainability fits in with universal design? And what opportunity is there for designers and engineers to really advance that area?

Nick Morris: Well, my simple take on sustainability is using the least amount of resources for the maximum amount of benefit. I love working with engineers on the structure, for example, to talk about horizontal evacuation in a building or talk about smoke isolated lift lobbies, or things like that. Let's just get it in early, the cost implication is negligible. But the impact for something like evacuation is huge.

James Millar: Do you think there is an opportunity for buildings to be assessed for inclusive design in the same way that they are measured for sustainability?

Nick Morris: In America, there's the Well rating. They've gone to that level. The International Paralympic Committee has a set of access guidelines. I was one of the founding authors of that document. And what's good about it, is that it has combined the best of everything, to create villages, or venues or retail or hotels, you can find something in there that gives you a benchmark that is over and above any national standard, it's actually trying to create the best it can possibly be, because that's one of the great things about the Olympics and Paralympics, is that we can set benchmarks on flexible design, on benchmark design, knowing full well that we have to cater for an elite athlete to be able to perform at their best. But when the circus leaves town, and the community come back in, they can not be burdened with a white elephant that is going to cost them, rather they've got this amazing community facility that actually will last 40 years.

James Millar: With your experience with the International Paralympic Committee, what are some of the cities or regions around the world that you think are leading the way? What can Australia learn from our international counterparts?

Nick Morris: The Brits, they pioneered changing places toilets. Changing places toilets is fantastic for a family who wants to take their mother out, or father out who might have dementia, or a son or a daughter who's had a stroke or has really high support needs. That was a legacy of the Olympics and Paralympics from 2012. And Sydney was the same, we set massive legacies from those events. Personally, I think we're leading the world. The NDIS is an amazing social outcome that is seeking to get people with disabilities or others from being on a disability support pension to actually paying taxes, because they've got a job, or they're studying, or they're volunteering, Scandinavia is another place that is really pushing the benchmark, probably more so in the environmental area. I just encourage everyone to push the benchmarks on what can be achieved.

James Millar: One of the examples that I really like, and being a landscape architect, obviously, it's very public realm focus, but is Schandorffs Plass in Oslo in Norway. The architects converted a car park into what they call a stepless environment, where the function of the ramp is actually how you navigate the space. So, there's no division in how anyone accesses A to B, for instance, and it's just one example I think, which is done very cleverly. But it's also something which you see almost commonly, that need to navigate vertical public space drives really, really intuitive solutions to make sure that a space can be experienced by everybody in the same way.

Nick Morris: I've got an absolute soft spot for landscaping, and I've got a really soft spot for playgrounds. And the reason I say playgrounds is because no child should not be able to go onto a playground and leave with a smile on their face. And I love developing circuits, a playground circuit that is almost circular. So, it's a bit like a fishbowl. The kids just keep moving around this circuit, there is no start. There's no end to it, they can join in wherever. They can be ramped, they can have hand exercises, they can feet exercise, they're can have all these things that are so engaging for people.

James Millar: It's really interesting what we can learn from the design of inclusive play spaces and how that applies to our public realm. There are incredible organisations out there, Touched by Olivia Foundation, who helped design inclusive play spaces. And to your point about creating circuits, there's also criteria in there about sensory play. So rough surfaces, smooth surfaces. How do you design with particular types of plants to create a certain smell, which is inviting? There are so many levers that we can pull to create these incredible spaces, which to the eye, are aesthetic, they're well put together. They're simple. But there's something in there for everyone.

Nick Morris: The Tanderrum bridge, that leads from Birrarung Marr across to the MCG has native sounds being acoustically projected. So it's a sensory experience. And if you ask anyone with a hearing impairment or vision impairment, what's so important now is the acoustics. Having low level speakers that give clarity at the train station so you can understand when things are changing, that we start looking at the environment saying how can we change simple things to actually help people who are hard of hearing not just hearing aid users or cochlear users because the standard says we've got to have a hearing augmentation system? Why don't we fix the acoustics so that everyone benefits from it, and you minimise the need for hearing augmentation systems because you've actually created just a better system where, when you're sitting waiting for a train, the speaker is just near your ear, and it's near a rest seat, and it's got a sign there so if you’re hard of hearing you go and sit at the same spot, just so if something gets announced you get clear auditory output from it.

James Millar: It’s a really interesting way to think about how we design our spaces and our places that's usually based on path of travel or accessing A to B, but there are so many other elements that we can design with to enhance and improve that experience.

Nick Morris: I keep on saying to a lot of my clients, have you got anyone with an accessibility need who currently works in the environment? If you do, let's go and have a chat to them. Are they happy? Are they sad? Are they using the latest technology? What are they doing? So that we can say, well, as a minimum, when we move forward, what we're going to design is going to be better than what they're experiencing now.

James Millar: It's a real opportunity for everyone to think about all of these things, for it to be front of mind, as opposed to an afterthought or a tick box exercise. Coming back to your love of accessibility and tying it into your sport, because before you were one of the industry's leading subject matter experts, you were also Paralympian, and a Paralympic gold medal winner. What was that experience like? And how does sport inspire you in your now day job of being an accessibility advocate?

Nick Morris: When I was in hospital, I had one of my old school teachers come up and he said, we'll haven’t you screwed up your potential. And from that moment onwards, I thought to myself, well hold on, my potential has just changed course. I was lucky enough to hang around some really positive people who challenged me. Winning a gold medal was just one of the most surreal experiences beating the Americans in Atlanta in the semi-final in front of 13,000 people and then beating Great Britain two nights after was just something you couldn't script, but what it did was all of a sudden, I was walking through a through a shopping centre, and I heard a young kid say to his mom, “I wonder what sport he plays”. It wasn't what was wrong with me. That child associated me in a pretty schmicko wheelchair wheeling along and wondering what sport I play. And that's the power, and I'm sure you've done as well is to go to schools and let people hold the gold medal and it's got braille on one side and standard text on the other and just see their eyes light up as if to say, “Wow, this is something that I can never achieve,” which you and I were both kids going, there's no way I will get there, then all of a sudden, you're a grown man, and you achieve it and you go, “Jeez, a bit of hard work doesn't go astray.”

James Millar: I'm a firm believer that there is always opportunity in uncertainty. And having experienced the hardships of training environments, and coming out the other side of a race with nothing but a smile on your face, it really sets the benchmark of what can be achieved when you do set your mind to it.

Nick Morris: But it’s also the analogy of sport and accessibility, one time you go out and you play sport, and you get smashed, you get beaten on the court is no different to wheeling up to a building and seeing a step at the front door that you can't get up. And you go, “Right, how do I deal with this?” There's two ways you can deal with it. You either don't go back there again. Or you go, “Nup, I'm gonna redo this”. And you either talk to the people and say, “Why isn't there a portable ramp here?” And the same with sport, you go, “I don't have that feeling again, I'm going to work my ass off, I'm going to work harder than anyone else”. So if I do lose, I've been beaten by someone who's worked harder or done more than I could. We all suffer failure and rejection. It's just how you respond to it, that's so important.

James Millar: We need to always make sure that we're pushing harder for a better outcome. There is so much that we can learn from sport more generally and apply to universal design and apply to design in general. Nick, thank you so much for your time today.

Nick Morris: Thanks mate, I really appreciate it. This won’t be the last discussion we have in this space.


Maria Rampa: We hope you enjoyed this episode of Engineering Reimagined.

I wonder how many design solutions, which we take for granted in our everyday lives, are the result of strategic and insightful planning by those who truly understand the need for accessible and universal design.

If you enjoyed this episode, hit subscribe on Apple, Google Podcasts or Spotify and don’t forget to follow Aurecon on your favourite social media platform to stay up to date and join the conversation.

Until next time, thanks for listening.

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Nick Morris talks about accessibility in design

Many of us think of accessibility challenges as having to do with disability. But really, we will all experience accessibility issues at some point in our lives – as toddlers navigating stairs, as parents pushing prams, as visitors in a foreign country trying to read a street sign, as an elderly person struggling to open a door, or even just as someone needing a quiet space to clear our busy minds.

“I throw disability out the window because it's just one form of accessibility. I categorise people as having an accessibility need,” says universal design expert Nick Morris.

Today, designers and planners are becoming much more cognisant of the need to design for accessibility, to ensure the design can be used by all people.

“Big corporates are now saying, we want to respond to universal design,” he says.

Catalysts such as major sporting events, like the Olympic and Paralympic Games, provide the perfect opportunities for designers and planners to create infrastructure that will not only meet the immediate needs of the event, but also go above and beyond, to leave a lasting legacy for the entire community. 

In this episode of Engineering Reimagined, Aurecon's Lead Design Integrator and Paralympian skier, James Millar, speaks with Director at Morris Goding Access Consulting and Paralympic wheelchair basketballer, Nick Morris, about universal design and how the best accessibility solutions are often the ones we take for granted. 

Meet our guests

Learn more about James Millar and Nick Morris.
James Millar, Lead Design Integrator, Aurecon

James Millar

Lead Design Integrator, Aurecon

With a foundation in landscape architecture and a passion for urban design, James has carved out a career by translating city strategy and infrastructure narrative into tangible initiatives and projects that provide environmental and economic uplift that leave a positive community legacy.

Nick Morris , Director, Morris Goding Access Consulting

Nick Morris

Director, Morris Goding Access Consulting

An accredited accessibility and universal design expert and advisor, Nick has become a role model within the industry and a mentor to many organisations in Australia and worldwide. He helps to foster an accessibility and universal design culture by assisting Olympic and Paralympic bids, organising committees and events staging.

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