I’m wheeling my way along the corridor against a crowd of conference attendees keen to get to the coffee. Many are impatient to check their emails and are already immersing themselves in a phone or tablet. There’s one coming my way and he’s not looking where he’s going. Surely he’s going to see my wheelchair? But I’ve witnessed this many times before. Invariably they cause me to do an emergency stop. They then stand over me looking confused and embarrassed before careening around me.
I thought it was me that was disabled? Not only am I immobile, I have optic neuritis which can make it hard to make visual sense of my surroundings during times of stress. This is true of many disabled people: disabilities come in twos and threes and are often invisible. So what’s this guy’s disability? Well, for sure, he’s only able to use some of his senses. The headphones make him insensible to my calls of alarm and his smart phone consumes any remaining sensory awareness. So it’s me that’s left feeling like the clunk in this encounter?
Of course, on this occasion no one was going to get hurt (apart from hurt pride). No doubt other mishaps involving building occupiers can have greater consequences. That’s why we look to the facilities manager to provide a safe environment. They adopt health and safety standards that minimise such hazards, being mindful of the diversity of building users.
But there are two things that don’t appear in the rulebook. The first of these is the growth of what I call ‘technologically disabled’. These are building users that choose to make the real world subservient to a virtual world when walking about. Yes, we may well have done it ourselves. Checking our text messages as we descend the stairs; talking on the smart phone as we carry hot drinks in the cafeteria. Yes, perhaps I’m a hypocrite. Maybe I would be doing the same if this pesky predicament had not overtaken me. As it is, I’ve discovered that disabled people spend much of their time carrying out their own informal risk appraisals. They are risk averse – and have to be in order to avoid the calamitous fall in the washroom or the uncontrolled descent down the stairs. So here we have an apparent paradox. Some of us building occupants are using every precaution to avoid injury in the workplace. At the same time, many healthy workers are choosing to take risks in the hope of saving time.
This brings me to the second matter that doesn’t appear in the rulebook: the concept of ‘risk compensation. ‘ Essentially this theory states that ‘people typically adjust their behavior in response to the perceived level of risk, becoming more careful where they sense greater risk and less careful if they feel more protected’. This explains our situation in a nutshell. Some of us necessarily have a heightened perception of risk (the ageing and disabled workforce); others have a reduced perception of risk (protected by their youthful exhuberance). For the facilities manager this phenomena presents a problem: the safer their constructed environment, the more inclined people are to take risks.
So, I’m not presenting an answer. Simply highlighting a question. Can we adopt a health and safety culture that addresses the distracted workforce? We may be surprised to find that increased risks are not solely attributable to disabled and ageing employees. The phenomenon of walking without using our senses (distracted walking) has created a new type of disabled user.
Since I wrote this blog I’ve tried to understand what has rattled my cage? For sure, distracted walking is going to become a major issue for facilities managers. It’s going to force them to reconsider signage, wayfinding, circulation and stair design among other things. But I guess for a disabled person, distracted walking is anathema. After all, isn’t the experience of walking a rare opportunity to live in the present and experience what surrounds you.
When you can no longer walk, it feels so difficult to accept. You want to shout out “wake up and enjoy walking, taking in the surroundings and meeting people at eye level.” Perhaps people feel that ‘undistracted walking'(or just walking) is an indulgence that cannot be undertaken in company time?
As for me, I’ll keep on rolling along. I won’t join the ranks of distracted walkers. My hands are occupied with steering and my eyes with avoiding the less engaged.
I can’t help asking ‘who’s the disabled one here?’ Sometimes I feel as if I’m the only one that’s looking out! Or perhaps I’m just jealous that I’m not part of the modern world. Perhaps, like other disabled people, it’s left me feeling rather alone in the physical world.