Urban Collaborative Spaces Can Provide Many Benefits for People with Disabilities

by Jun 24, 2013Smart Cities

Josef Scarantino

Josef Scarantino is a technologist interested in global urban development, civic innovation & impact, and environmental sustainability practices that promote social inclusion. He performs business development for United Cerebral Palsy’s Life Labs, a technology initiative that seeks to identify, develop, and support ideas that will make a difference for people living with disabilities through dynamic collaborations with individuals, businesses, and communities.


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Collaborative spaces within the city are more than just rising hotbeds of innovation; they can serve as social equalizers to disenfranchised populations, such as people with physical and cognitive disabilities. Collaborative spaces can help promote social inclusion by acting as accessible hubs of civic engagement, meaningful relationships, learning, innovation, and creativity.

As the world becomes more urban and digitally engrossed, especially within our social lives, the importance of smart application of physical space and face-to-face collaboration remains. We crave human contact and typically prefer collaborative environments. This fact is amplified for people with physical and cognitive disabilities, who are often shut off from society and disenfranchised from full participation.

In the U.S. alone, it is estimated that between 50 and 60 million people live with a disability. Worldwide, statistics vary greatly due to a lack of common measurement standards and governmental cooperation in identifying and recognizing those who live with a disability. However, most international bodies agree on numbers between 800 million and as many as 1 billion people living with a physical or cognitive disability. These are staggering numbers for a  population that suffers from social, political, and economic exclusion their entire lives. This also presents a tremendous challenge for booming urban centers around the world.

Although most developed countries have passed legislation guaranteeing certain rights toward accessibility and political participation for people with disabilities, the implementation of those laws remains a barrier to full participation, not to mention formidable public perceptions towards people with disabilities. Since the beginning of the Internet-connected age, copious studies have been conducted measuring the internet’s impact on social capital or the collective benefits derived from certain types of cooperation between individuals and groups. While the Internet has licensed new forms of physical participation, many scholars point to a degradation of social capital, or the physical relationships that truly benefit society. Other studies suggest that the more people are online, the less likely they are to be involved in traditional spaces that help to promote intimacy and physical relationships.

Less involvement in traditional physical spaces translates to increased disenfranchisement socially, civically, and politically. Yet, new forms of collaborative spaces, including makerspaces and hackerspaces, are being built and are taking society back to its roots of meaningful social interaction and collaboration. These spaces have the power to transform the lives of millions of people with disabilities across the world.

Most everyone engaged in today’s global innovation trends are aware of makerspaces, hackerspaces, and various other forms of collaborative spaces in use in thousands of urban environments around the world, from Nairobi to Shenzhen to Vancouver. It is probably fair to say that collaborative spaces have existed for as long as mankind has learned to work together towards a common goal. Yet, the definition of collaborative spaces is widening over the years. A concept that was originally defined as freely organized makerspaces and hackerspaces has spread to franchised operations, such as MIT’s Fab Labs and TechShops, to co-working spaces, public libraries, museums, and school campuses of all levels. Nearly every city has multiple makerspaces of some sort where people gather to collaborate and build the future with 3D printers, CNC machines, and even sewing machines. Some collaborative spaces do not have machines at all, but serve as gathering spots for programmers or designers working on the next groundbreaking mobile app or web service.

The Library as Incubator Project fittingly defines makerspaces as,

“collaborative learning environments where people come together to share materials and learn new skills…makerspaces are not necessarily born out of a specific set of materials or spaces, but rather a mindset of community partnership, collaboration, and creation.”

Although collaborative spaces are difficult to define, beyond “community partnership, collaboration, and creation,” they are becoming increasingly altruistic in that projects are often working towards alleviating some form of public encumbrance for the welfare of others. The move towards more advantageous innovations for the benefit of society is an important trend for collaborative spaces. While many people would be inclined to think that collaborative spaces are full of young college-age technologists seeking the next billion dollar novelty, the truth is that people of all ages and skill sets are migrating to these spaces to make the world a better place, albeit often starting in their own home or neighborhood.

These altruism-friendly collaborative spaces create tremendous opportunities for people with disabilities:

  • The first and immediate benefit of collaborative spaces is social interaction. When surveyed, people with disabilities commonly say that social interaction is their number one need in life. Collaborative spaces can help by building friendships around common goals and interests that would likely not have been formed outside of this environment.
  • Secondly, collaborative spaces can serve as a conduit for increased civic participation and engagement. Local governments often seek ways to engage marginalized populations in non-public venues. Collaborative spaces, such as civic labs, can be the bridge between public officials and citizens, particularly concerning participatory governance and planning.
  • Thirdly, people with disabilities live with a myriad of technical challenges in day-to-day life. However, they are often not consulted in the creation of technological solutions for those very challenges, and most assistive technologies are prohibitively expensive, particularly if you live in a developing country. Collaborative spaces can serve as a safe venue for creating innovative solutions using 3D printing, materials fabrication, and rapid prototyping. After all, who knows more about innovative solutions than those who will use them?
  • And finally, people with disabilities typically face extremely high unemployment rates, far beyond the average citizen in society. Yet, people with disabilities want to work and provide value to their local economies. Collaborative spaces can serve as centers of job and skills training. Spending time in a makerspace not only teaches technical skills, but problem solving, teamwork, critical thinking, and changing modes of learning–all important skills in today’s economy.

Collaborative spaces have the potential to create immense opportunity for people with disabilities, a population that has enormous reserves of creativity. Creating accessible collaborative spaces for people with disabilities shouldn’t be an act of charity, either; it is simply the right thing to do. There is a role for local government to play in lending financial, legal, and political support to the spaces in their jurisdiction. There is a role for collaborative spaces to play in building awareness of the need for attracting more diverse members while making their spaces fully accessible. But meaningful social inclusion begins by recognizing that people with disabilities have equal value in society to voice their concerns and create solutions to life’s challenges.

Collaborative, accessible spaces are not just about equality, but about equity in the city. As physical spaces remain essential components of effective participation of citizens, collaborative spaces can be an integral part of a new framework exercising the public commons to increase citizen to city collaboration where all are welcome.

The barriers to full social, civic, and political participation for people with disabilities don’t have to be disenfranchisement and exclusion from society. Collaborative spaces can help to remove those barriers to participation, only if we truly use them for their full potential.

It is an exciting time to be alive when the barriers to innovation and creativity have been lowered exponentially for people who want to try their hand at making or hacking practically any idea their mind can imagine, whether it’s a new gadget for the home or an improvement for the local neighborhood. It’s even more exciting when everyone can participate equally regardless of economic or social position. Let’s make this happen around the world for all people of all abilities.


Sources:

Photo by Matthew Smith.

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4 Comments

  1. Josef – thank you for this amazing blog post. So thought provoking and enlightening. A perspective we don’t hear enough of. I’m astounded at how many people are living with a disability in the US. Does the 50-60 million number include all kinds of disabilities or just physical disability?

    The unemployment rate of disabled people is another really important part of the equation that needs to be at the forefront of the economic and jobs discussion as well. The new economy and its collaborative work spaces, as you say, does appear to be a great starting solution to bridging the gap. Thanks again for your post. I hope you will write again.

    Reply
    • Thanks for the comment Jessie. Yes, the 50-60 million number includes all types of disabilities from intellectual to physical. It is certainly an astounding number and even larger when viewed in a global context. I’m working on more articles that tackle the topic of social inclusion in an urban environment. My hopes are that this encourages others to bring more attention to these issues. Thanks for the opportunity to bring my words to CityMinded.org!

      Reply
  2. The problem I see in the US is that the ADA basically reduced access requirements to a ruleset. Once you do that, you can focus on rule compliance and forget actual disabled people. Rather than a posture of inclusion towards people with disabilities, it’s how to comply with rules. Which of course produces our famous American litigiousness.

    There’s a debate in accountancy over whether there should be a more rules based system like the US or a principles based one like IFRS. There’s something to be said on both sides, but I think designing with the principle of including people with disabilities as a specific goal (rather than merely complying with a set of rules in the design book) is something that we should include in how we develop things. I think the co-working crowd and such are more principles oriented than rule-oriented, so perhaps this is a good testbed for your ideas.

    Reply
    • That is an excellent point Aaron. While I focused mostly on the benefits of inclusive collaborative spaces for PWDs, the matter of compliance is an area of much debate. I agree, there is certainly much to be said for both rules-based and principles-based approaches. The advocate in me leans towards the principles-based approach, as you can see throughout the article. Although, I believe there is much more work to be done in engaging co-working and collaborative spaces in the benefits of inclusion. Perhaps, as you said, this may be a good testbed for some of these ideas.

      Thank you for your insightful comment!

      Reply

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