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Image credit: Enabled City

Alick Mackenzie: Enabled City

Alick Mackenzie: Enabled City

Alick Mackenzie tells Queen's Young Leaders about consulting users to develop better products and services

London isn’t the easiest city to find your way around. It has evolved over 20 centuries into a sprawling mass of mismatched buildings and streets that turn and intersect at often surprising places.

Pavements widen and narrow, apparently at random. There are 270 underground stations and at least 6,000 sets of traffic lights. And if its layout weren't confusing enough, its 8 million-plus population has a tendency to rush.

All these things make London a difficult city to navigate, whoever you are, wherever you’re from. But for people with disabilities, the capital can be a nightmare. Which is why care worker, Alick Mackenzie set up his company, Enabled London – now Enabled City – at the turn of the century.

“We got some Millenium Commission Funding in 2000 and started working with community groups. That’s when we embraced working with people with learning difficulties as an implementation standard.”

Disability in the UK

More than 11 million people in the UK have a limiting long-term illness, impairment or disability. While most of these are physical, 1.5 million people have a learning disability, of which 350,000 are thought to be severe.

“If you get information right for this group of people, nine times out of ten you’re getting it right for the visually impaired. Develop your services through meaningful consultation with this group, and you get it right for people who have English as a second language, for people who have a physical disability, and for tourists.”

Enabled City user consultation

Alick and his team started by asking consultees what information they needed to choose a leisure facility or day out. The process taught them a lot.

“It gave us the expertise to work with these guys in meaningful ways. From developing that leisure resource we recognised that there were a couple of other problems stopping people participating.”

Developing tools

One of these was the written language on websites, which led Enabled London to develop Word Bank, a widget that explains difficult words.

Later, in 2006, the company consulted people with learning disabilities to develop its award-winning tool, PhotoRoute. This shows users how to get from A to B by providing photographic instructions to guide them on their journey.

PhotoRoute logo

“We thought, we want this to be as broad as possible, so let’s work with people with learning disabilities. As technology advanced we created a map-authoring toolkit where other people can create maps locally or we can create them for them.”

Building relationships

Enabled London worked with a group of five consultees, through Hackney One – an employment project that part-funded the consultation.

“When you’re working with people who have learning disabilities it takes time to build a relationship, so they supplied a job coach and put people forward.”

Over the three-month consultation, Alick’s team showed the consultees their idea for the PhotoRoute maps and got them to try them out. Then they explained what they’d like to do with the technology and got them to feed into how that could work.

As the technology evolved Enabled London made sure it worked and that the consultees were happy with it. By the end they had created maps using the PhotoRoute toolkit, some of which are still live today, like this map to Homerton Hospital.

Working together has also allowed Enabled City to build a relationship with their consultees over time. And they have a policy of employing learning disabled people where possible so that they can benefit from their expertise.

“You can’t second guess what people might need and if you don’t develop stuff with your clients, or client groups, you’ll get something at the end that will be totally off the mark. You can’t develop without developing it with that group of people. It just wouldn’t work.”

Equality and diversity aren’t just values for Enabled City, they are the reason it exists. Part of the Enabled City ethos is that “information should be fun, represent our diverse communities and be accessible”. For this, Alick says, it’s vital to get to know the people you consult and those you do business with.

“You have to get close to the individual. You’ve got to get to know people. It’s the same in business. If you want to sell something to someone it’s about whether you have a relationship.”

Inclusivity and empowerment

In the UK, unemployment is higher among people with disabilities. In 2012, among people of working age, only 46.3% of those with disabilities had jobs, compared to 76.4% of those without. One of the by-products of the PhotoRoute consultation was that three of the seven consultees went on to find jobs as mapping consultants.

Alick believes attitudes towards disabled people and disability are beginning to change.

For example, Enabled City worked with the Greater London Authority (GLA) to map step-free access around London for the 2012 Olympic Games. At the opening of the Paralympic Games, the GLA’s 2012 unit presented PhotoRoute alongside the inclusive design of the Olympic and Paralympic Park.

“And they didn’t talk about disability. They talked about inclusive design.”

Enabled City user consultation 2

More recently, the Tottenham Hotspur Football Club and its charitable foundation have used Photo Route to teach people with special education needs to travel independently. They were so pleased with it they referred Enabled City to the main club.

“The guys in the stadium said, well this is not about disability. This is wider. It’s about customer experience, match day experience.”

Tottenham Hotspur are now planning to integrate iBeacon technology into their PhotoRoute maps to assist those who are blind or visually impaired with navigating their stadium.

Alick points out that part of the value of inclusive design is that, in the long run, it benefits everybody.

“The best accessibility tools are the ones you don’t realise are a disability tool, like the television remote. That was developed for disability needs, and the interface to your touch-screen phone. This is where we have to take our accessibility products to.”