When we talk about accessibility, we usually think of adapting environments for people with physical mobility problems: putting ramps in accesses to homes, enabling elevators to go through different floors of buildings without using stairs, installing handrails at difficult points along a route to help people move, etc.
However, and despite the fact that there is still a long way to go to make universal physical accessibility effective, there are other types of impediments that are less well known than physical or logistical obstacles in the environment: sensory and cognitive ones. In this article we will focus on cognitive accessibility, since this often also includes sensory considerations -the understanding of environments or tasks and the perception of stimuli are constantly interrelated- and, furthermore, it is extremely useful to help people with autism at work or in their daily routines.
We could define cognitive accessibility as the characteristics of environments, processes, activities, or objects that allow their easy understanding, communication between the different parties and their usability by people. We see, then, that this type of accessibility refers directly to cognition, to the mind, to the different strategies and methods that human beings have to face a new task, an unknown environment or an overwhelming process that requires from us -neurodivergent people, among others- an overexertion or mental exhaustion that worsens our quality of life.
Some examples of great cognitive challenges for autistic people could be: coping with surgeries without any anticipation or explanation of the process by the doctor; reading excessively technical texts, with an abundance of subordinates, inferences, and metaphorical or figurative language; find their way around the interior of buildings without maps that structure the different rooms and without visual aids, etc.
To facilitate our performance in these challenges, some cognitive accessibility proposals include exterior and interior designs that are easy to decode and understand, signalling systems -through pictograms, for example-, easy reading techniques, communication supports or systems to assist in anticipation, routines, or uncertainty management. We must also remember that universal accessibility is a right of all people, and therefore public and private organizations should be aware of these basic premises to ensure that the needs of autistic people are met.
Within cognitive accessibility, wayfinding design is a discipline aimed at planning, designing and applying orientation systems in physical environments -mainly urban-, with the aim of improving the legibility of spaces and navigation through the city. Due to the cognitive differences of autistic people, it is likely that we perceive different environments differently from the neurotypical population and, therefore, it is obvious to think that we will also need different rules and supports -neither better nor worse- to navigate through the cities with peace and tranquillity, without being overwhelmed by the inaccuracy of certain plane coordinates or unforeseen changes that are not contemplated in the maps of a specific route.
Wayfinding accessibility systems aim to be predictable, inclusive and intuitive, flexible. They are constantly updated, according to the alterations that are taking place in the urban space, and represent the diversity of the entire population; In this way, the promoters of these orientation techniques try to design physical or digital supports -maps, informative pictograms, different types of plans, thematic routes, specific drawings to represent natural elements, explanations of processes in the form of vignettes, etc.-
Autism Friendly Environments
Some wayfinding principles are useful for many neurodivergences, but we can delve further into other types of help if we refer specifically to autism and its particular idiosyncrasies when it comes to relating to different environments, both known and unknown.
At a bus stop, for example, an autistic person is likely to feel some discomfort and ask a series of questions: “When exactly will the next bus come? Will it go too fast, and I won’t be able to stop it? Why the screens that indicate the step frequency do not work? What will happen if the driver changes the route halfway? Will the people waiting next to me respect the turn of arrival at the stop to get on the bus, or will they sneak in before anyone else to choose the best seat? Will there be too many people inside, and I won’t be able to sit down?” Among many other questions.
Obviously, it is practically impossible to eliminate uncertainty, design systems to anticipate absolutely everything or signal itineraries with pinpoint precision, but there are techniques to reduce annoying stimuli, avoid sensory and cognitive overloads, structure and anticipate complicated situations, and, ultimately, help autistic people to mentalize and prepare to face a difficult situation. For this, it is necessary to respect sensory particularities, create predictive and clear environments -anticipate news, changes, holidays or atypical days, moments of break-, simplify the language -preferably use a slow and not too strong tone, with few metaphors, and make sure you have captured the attention before speaking-, structure the space and time of certain activities, respect visual thinking -ideograms, pictograms, comic strips, etc.- and compensate for generalization problems.
Delving a little deeper into the language, it is advisable to use easy reading techniques to transmit information in written form. This system consists of a series of guidelines and recommendations for text writing, document design and layout to make certain knowledge accessible to people with reading comprehension difficulties -among them, many autistic people-. An easy-to-read text, broadly speaking, must contain a simple, frequent and familiar vocabulary, a simple morphology and syntax, few inferences, literal language -not figurative- and not require too much prior knowledge from the reader, nor a great memory capacity.
Cognitive accessibility at work
How will an autistic person feel safe in her workplace building? There is no single answer because we are all different, but there are some general rules: eliminate distracting stimuli -moving blinds, noisy radiators, extreme or unpleasant temperatures-, divide the spaces according to their function -in room A, For example, workers spend their time having breakfast and chatting, and in room B they can develop their projects-, avoid strident or reflective colours for the floors or walls -preferably, use pastel colours-, respect personal space -crowds tend to overwhelm us-, use acoustic insulation systems if necessary -to reduce excess noise from the street-, avoid the use of puzzle-like patterns or other types of fractional combinations on floors and walls, use different colours for different floors, or use labels or post-its to visually remember where certain items are stored.
Regarding time, predictability is essential; It would be advisable to anticipate when something will happen and in what sequence, represent abstract concepts visually, indicates the duration of an activity with pictograms or through the use of visual bells and timers, use agendas -with drawings, symbols and other icons- to organize the activities to be carried out on different days, establish routines -avoid, as far as possible, improvisation, sudden changes, ambiguities or unclear explanations of delivery times-. It is very possible that, if many of these premises are met, the autistic person will feel much more comfortable and confident in her workplace and will be able to bring out all the potential that she carries within.
Article by Montse Bizarro, Specialisterna Spain.
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