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Diversity in Construction Resource Library

London Build

02 Nov 2023

Interview with the Founder of Direct Access: Steven Mifsud

Interview with the Founder of Direct Access: Steven Mifsud
Founder of Direct Access: Steven Mifsud

1. Can you provide an overview of Direct Access’ mission and the core services you offer as International Accessibility Consultants?

“Direct Access’ mission has remained the same since our inception in 2004 - which is to say that we are a DOBE® certified Disability Owned and Operated Business Enterprise, providing accessibility consultancy based on our team's real lived experience of disability, in the effort to create a better world for disabled people.”

 

2. How do you define ‘accessibility’ in the context of your work, and why is it important for businesses and organisations?

“The way we would define accessibility in the context of our work varies depending on the framework we’re working with. In the beginning, Direct Access was purely an accessibility consultancy, offering businesses practical, professional advice on overcoming the wide range of physical barriers faced by disabled people. However, this has since evolved, and we now provide Accessible Media Services, including website accessibility audits and sign language content.

We also design our own accessible products in-house at our Innovation Centre, providing everything from QR-Code enhanced Braille Map Boards, to 3D Printed Animal Busts for use in museums and parks. Across each of these fields, the core philosophy is that we encourage site owners to be as accessible as possible to the widest possible range of people.

As to why it’s important, if businesses don’t cater to disabled people, then they risk alienating a potential customer base, or in the worst-case scenario, they break the law. To us, it makes little sense to discriminate against anyone. Accessibility is the true test of a product or amenity or built environment’s quality”.

 

3. What specific industries or types of organisations do you typically work with, and what are the common accessibility challenges they face?

“When delivering accessibility consultation, we typically work with Architectural Firms, ensuring that new-build sites meet their legal requirements in terms of inclusion and access. However, we often like to push our collaborators further to innovate new ways of being accessible, particularly as many of the laws and legislation surrounding disability access are quite broad and in some cases outdated, like the Americans with Disabilities Act - which while being an important foundational document in the civil rights of disabled people, is over 30 years old now, yet is still often cited as an innovative, forward-thinking document.

Working with architects, we have delivered access consultancy services for everyone from Expo 2020 and the London 2012 Olympics, to restaurant chains like Nandos and Subway, to some of the world’s most prestigious museums like the Royal Armouries and the Science Museum Group.

What many of these clients have had in common as far as challenges go, is understanding that accessibility is for everyone, not just disabled people. For instance, an accessible evacuation chair not only benefits mobility-impaired people, but also benefits pregnant women, children, and temporarily disabled people. In the same way, large print menus benefit not only people with visual impairments but also the elderly and children. Once our clients realise the untapped potential in accessibility, they suddenly begin to clearly understand and see the benefits. So one of the challenges is actually convincing people that it’s so important.”

 

4. Can you share some examples of projects where your expertise made a significant impact in improving accessibility?

“A recent example for us would probably be our work in Allen Texas, where our team audited over 78 miles of trails and over 50 properties - including the Credit Union of Texas Event Center, a 6,275 fixed-seat multi-purpose indoor arena. After visiting several parks, sports centers, and nature trails numerous times over several months - our reports were embraced by the local City of Allen government. And they’re now looking to implement as many of our recommendations as possible to make outdoor spaces more inclusive for people with disabilities - which was incredibly encouraging.

In the United Arab Emirates, we are currently working on the accessibility of the site for COP28. which is managed by Expo City, whom we also worked with on Expo 2020 Dubai, The City is scheduled to host the 2023 United Nations Climate Change Conference this month (November). After the notorious issues with COP-26, such as the fact that the Israeli energy minister Karine Elharrar, was unable to attend due to wheelchair accessibility issues, we knew changes had to be made. But in addition to wheelchair users, we also considered neurodiverse attendees, such as people who are autistic, as well as visually impaired individuals, those who are hard of hearing, and much more. We considered everyone, and we hope to see a significant impact there as a result”

 

5. Could you describe a particularly challenging accessibility problem you've encountered and how you approached and resolved it?

At Expo 2020 Dubai, accessibility was a relatively new practice when we started working with the Architects back in 2018, and there were gaps in local knowledge, culturally. We approached this and worked around it by creating a benchmark report that measured all of the global accessibility guidance and streamlining it. This not only helped the designers create an accessible site, but one that pushed the boundaries in inclusion in the region.”

 

6. In your experience, what are the key benefits for businesses and organisations that invest in accessibility consulting services?

“An awareness of diversity and accessibility offers a multitude of social and financial benefits, as does creating more accessible physical, social, digital, and sensory environments. Doing that ultimately benefits everybody in society. But the key thing to remember is that the benefits are not often immediate and arrive overtime after a concerted effort. In the end, we are honest with our clients, and let them know that the benefits of inclusion begin in the short-term but are only bound to increase”.

 

7. Can you share a few success stories or powerful moments when your work as an accessibility consultant made a transformative difference for a client or a community?

“In the UK, we designed the first ever Quiet Room stationed permanently at a public transport facility in the well-connected transport hub of Crewe - which had its 3-year anniversary a couple of months ago. This particular site was designed so that autistic and neurodiverse travellers who may wish to wait in peace during their journey would be able to do so. And it remains in use to this day.

In the United Arab Emirates, we designed and implemented the first ever Changing Places facility in the whole of the Middle East at Expo 2020 Dubai - which was incredible. In addition, we introduced the Middle East to the Hidden Disability Sunflower Lanyard, resulting in an endorsement for the Lanyards from the UAE Minister of State for International Co-Operation. Both of these were touchstone moments of reflection for us, as far as realising the extent that our work has made an impact. “

 

8. What trends or emerging technologies in the accessibility field do you find most exciting, and how do you see them shaping the future of accessibility consulting?

“We are continually impressed with the capabilities technology has in generating accessibility, whether it’s QR technology or the latest developments in A.I.

At the moment, we are particularly excited about the potential that 3D-printing technology presents - to the extent that we 3D print our own range of accessible products designed for the benefit of disabled people. Harnessing the power of that technology, our Accessible Media department produces tactile and Braille models that enable blind people to explore the dimensions and flow of buildings, objects, or animals that may not easily be described. In a world where sight is the predominant sense utilized for interpretation, 3D models allow objects to become inclusive by taking advantage of people’s other senses.

Another area which is exciting is the use of VR and particulary Apple’s upcoming headset and ‘spatial computing’. We think this could lead to many possibilities, such as within the Museum sector.

 

It’s this exact approach to innovation that we try to instill in any client we collaborate with”.


Credit: Steven Mifsud MBE

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