Thank you for join us for this interview series, we’ve been talking to experts in aging, mobility, technology, policy to uncover the business and social opportunities that inclusive and accessible products, services and experiences deliver.
Q. Tell us your own story.
By training I’m a geriatric social worker but I really work to design communities that allow us to be free and independent no matter what our functioning capacities may be and how they change throughout our lives.
To me the relationship between accessibility and inclusion is really important because in order to make something inclusive it has to be accessible. But accessibility without inclusion doesn’t necessarily create the attitude or sense of value we need to feel like we belong in a group or in our community. I think about how we can bridge technology with our community infrastructure in a way where we can all participate.
Quote from Ani: I think about how we can bridge technology with our community infrastructure in a way where we can all participate.
Currently with Ford Motor Company I’m on a small team that operates a shared wheelchair van service in Southeast Michigan, primarily taking people to and from nursing facilities and hospital systems for medical treatments. The service we have designed supports people with extreme needs. The majority of our riders are using wheelchairs and are managing multiple chronic illnesses. Our vehicles by design are accessible. But I think that it’s really our drivers who provide the door-through-door service that create the inclusive environment and ultimately the great experience with our passengers. Designing this very high touch system means that it can work for almost anyone no matter what people’s individualized needs may be.
We hope to keep breaking down the access barriers people face in our communities.
Quote from Ani: Our vehicles by design are accessible. But I think that it’s really our drivers who provide the door-through-door service that create the inclusive environment and ultimately the great experience with our passengers.
Q: What drew you to this work?
Through my relationship with different designers and I saw how social work could inform the design process. I was working primarily in housing spaces but I saw that transportation was an area that was untouched by a lot of social workers. A lot of the transportation research and innovations were being developed at the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute which I had access to, so I finished my geriatric fellowship in graduate school working with them.
Q: You also have like a really special perspective just because you come from a family that’s been involved in transportation and automotive. You immediately saw the opportunity.
Yes, I started thinking about what I had access to and how do I bring people into the aging services space.
Q. When did inclusion really became important to you and when was it really felt.
When I was a kid I learned how powerful inclusion can be. I attended international schools as an ex-patriate. My identity developed in an environment where all of my peers and teachers were from a plethora of different countries. My classmates’ families became my family despite language differences, different customs that we practiced and our different ways of life. I naturally learned how valuable it is to really engage and empathize with people who are different from me. And at a very basic level, every person in this “third culture” community has felt like an outsider to the country that they are surrounded by — the environment and culture we were living in weren’t designed for us. I think I became hypersensitive to recognizing the role that I can play in facilitating inclusivity and comfort in my environment and how important it is to make sure that everyone has the choice to participate in their environment.
Q: How do you tie that to the experience for the aging population?
I work with people who may have always lived with a disability or as they get older they lose their functioning capacity. Just day-to-day activities inside the home can become so difficult when your home is not designed for your needs. When you’re living alone and you can’t reach the counters or you can’t get out of bed successfully at night because it’s just it’s difficult you can’t find the lights. You lose the ability to do sort of your everyday functions. And when your home isn’t designed well enough for your needs, community sometimes can be even more of a stretch. In Detroit and a lot of other cities, our infrastructure depends on people operating vehicles or driving their own, where public transit and street system have been underfunded. Aging people who do not drive vehicles become isolated because they can’t get around in the community — they essentially lose their choices and your ability to be free when you can’t just get up and do what you want to do to and need to depend on other people.
Q: What do you think the value of engaging the aging is for the larger community?
Speaking specifically about Detroit. You have a lot of new people like me who are younger moving into a city and where our demographics are very polarized. There’s a lot of history that’s not written in textbooks. As people are moving in and the city starts to change, you lose a lot of the history and the knowledge that can die or become displaced as a product of these changes. When you make relationships with people who are different from you, you learn so much about yourself and the world. It’s a shame if we lost that collective community that inclusive environments facilitate.
Q. What is an example of something that you’re working on and how it has delivered value not only to the aging population but the community around them.
I think the most important learning from the initial pilot phase of the project with the Ford Motor Company is that we are changing the way people think about solving mobility problems. The team I am on and the service we have built illustrates the different ways that large companies traditionally outside of the social change space can form unique partnerships and leverage what we have access to — to provide the freedom of mobility to people who may have lost this ability otherwise. And I’m excited to see the value it will continue to bring to our ecosystem beyond just our riders and families. I’m starting to feel that more and more powerful people are taking action to combat underprepared and overstressed systems, especially when the systems care for aging people.
Quote from Ani: the most important learning from the initial pilot phase of the project with the Ford Motor Company is that we are changing the way people think about solving mobility problems.
Q: What’s the current perception around mobility.
To me, current perceptions around mobility and particularly mobility services for aging people focus a lot on making technology platforms accessible so innovations like transportation network companies (Lyft, Uber…) become better designed for people. However, the paradigm changing right now in the mobility space depends on the solutions and services owning and operating the assets—the vehicles. Technology to enhance these services is great, but the solutions aren’t fully enabled without some form of metal box on wheels. We need a greater supply of the metal boxes on wheels to support our rapidly aging society. Not to mention, more awareness developing the ground to get to the metal box. Even further, many people require assistance navigating this ground, which is why the drivers in mobility services such as my current project are so important.
Q: It also sounds like the vehicles and the technology deliver inclusion but it wouldn’t come together without the drivers.
Right. Sometimes it’s the drivers who are the reasons why people want to go on their medical appointments. It might be cold outside. They may not feel well. They’re having a bad day. But they see drivers they know and trust and enjoy spending time with and feel ready to go. It’s our drivers that really create the inclusive environment and the attitude that provides a really great customer experience to our riders, their families, and facility staff.
Q: What you’re saying is we forget that customer experience is best delivered by people.
Yes. So what we can do is build good tools and technologies that enable great communication between the different users of our system. Most importantly, tools that support our drivers.
Q: What does the technology do for the drivers?
The technology has to take into account our rider reservation information and be set up in a way that interfaces well with health care spaces. This means having the correct fields that are displayed in way that is easy to interpret. It also needs to be optimal a form a dispatching and routing perspective as well. Our customers rely on drivers to get riders where they need to go, and if the technology isn’t designed for them then there is a lot of miscommunication that can happen.
Q: Who do you think the biggest critics of inclusion are?
I think some of the most exclusive spaces are new housing developments. If you look at data maps and see how patterns have changed over time – it is highly segregated when it comes to age and ability. You can tell that it’s catering to young new professionals moving into cities like myself.
Q: What attributes do those those high rises have?
They are right downtown. It’s walkable to city centers. There is laundry on site. There’s a gym. If you look at new developments for senior housing, it is often it is in a corner by itself. It might not be in an area where people can walk to the store or across the road in a timely manner. If developers spent a little bit more money to incorporate universal design components into housing they’d be actually creating a product that serves more people and serves people better.
Q: What exciting innovations in inclusion do you see in or outside of your field.
I get excited when I see how we can keep integrating technology into our community, especially mobility infrastructure on a citywide scale. We’re developing these incredible sensors and networks and other tools we can use to engage and better serve people when we put them truly at the center of our smart city interventions. Mass Factory out of Barcelona has a start up called Compagnon. It is a smart guidance system where users may who live with a disability can create customized routes and are guided people step-by step through public transit systems. The parts of the system are a smart phone app, a control center where people can operate and monitor the system, and a web-based app all hosted over the cloud. However, it does rely on the physical environment and transit system to be designed universally. They have launched in parts of Canada, Spain, the UK, and will be piloting as part of Columbus’ Smart City program. Aside from technology, integrating arts and culture into complete street design to provide a mobility experience is also vital.
Innovations like this help people remain a part of their community and to be independent. It is about having the choice whether to be active or not or to participate or not. And how do we build technology that gives people more choices.
Quote from Ani: Accessibility without inclusion doesn’t necessarily create the attitude or sense of value we need to feel like we belong in a group or in our community.