Friendliness in the environment

Litvak and Enders (2001), provide an excellent example of how the physical environment changes to become “friendly” in a physical sense.  This is the same kind of change that the social environment needs to undergo in order to also become, truly friendly, in a social sense. Social ramps change a social community, hopefully making it more friendly. “The more friendliness that can be built into the environment, the fewer specialized supports the person will need…”

“Environmental demands require different sets of suethiopiaguys-bwpport elements. There is a strong correlation between the friendliness of both the micro and macro of the environment and the need for specialized support systems elements. The more hostile the environment becomes, the more individualized supports will be needed to venture out into it successfully…The more ‘friendliness’ that can be built into the environment, the fewer specialized supports the person will need to carry along. While elevators are not likely to be installed on Everest, curb cuts on city streets and accessible buses reduce the ‘hostility’ of the environment. Continuing to see the problem as being in the individual (the medical model), as opposed to seeing the environment or society as being disabling (the interactive or environmental model), leads to design priorities for building stair-climbing wheelchairs rather than building ramps and curb cuts.”

From Litvak, S. & Enders, A. (2001). Support systems: The interface between individuals and environments (pp.711-733). In G. Albrecht, K. Seelman & M. Bury (eds.) Handbook of Disability Studies. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.


A practical application of McNair & McKinney (2015)

A church I know of makes an effort to include adults with disabilities. One man in the group, Jeff, a very engaging and talkative man, has an incredible ability to get people to allow him to work alongside of them in various church activities (don’t you wish there were more people like that!). Anyway, one week he was acting as a greeter; someone who may be the first point of contact of community members with the church. Several church members actually complained/wondered out loud about whether he would be a good greeter. You see, his dress can be a bit unkempt, and after years of living in a group home for people with intellectual disabilities his teeth are missing, miscolored, etc. He also has an intellectual disability so believe it or not…he is too friendly! That is evidenced in the way he chats briefly with people as they enter. He doesn’t understand that the enviornment’s social demands require that he just say “Hello” and hand over the bulletin. As a result, those who enter are unsure of how to respond. But one of the pastors of the church told me that he read the Social Ramps article. He commented that “This is where the church needs to go!”

Well the latest is that Jeff is now a greeter at the church. Additionally, the pastor introduced him from the pulpit and told of how delighted he was that he is now a greeter (preparation/education/coaching). This photo shows Jeff pointing to his official greeter badge.

Now most of us would not take particular delight in being a greeter. But consider how Jeff sees this opportunity. He is a man who has been devalued by society because of his intellectual disability. He lives his life largely segregated from the community in a group home setting, only venturing out to participate in his day program. But now, he is able to use his friendliness and talkativeness to welcome people to the one place in the community where he himself has been welcomed, integrated and trusted. The enviornment has changed to accept him.  He will have to work a bit on cutting down on his greeting conversation, but that is part of what he needs to do to make it easier for the social environment to continue to do the right thing.

Social Ramps: The principles of universal design applied to the social environment

Social Ramps. McNair & McKinney(2015)

McNair and McKinney flesh out principles of universal design as it applies to the social enviornment. They provide a variety of foundational ideas which might led to further research in the area. They then use the example of the local Christian church as a way in which the principles might be facilitated in actual social settings. This example is helpful in thinking how these principles might be applied in a practical way to a social environment. The abstract of the article states,

This article considers a next step in the application of universal design principles, that being universal social design. Using the idea of “social ramps,” we consider seven principles of universal design from a social perspective. Social skill deficits in persons with disabilities has arguably been the reason for exclusion of persons with disabilities. But if the traditions of those without disabilities leads to the exclusion of those with disabilities, then one must wonder who has the social skill deficits? This is particularly the case from a Christian perspective. This article challenges the reader on a variety of levels to reflect on social practices with an eye toward changes leading to inclusion.

Much more will be added here relative to this topic, however, this might be the first article to address these issues in this manner.


A social ramp example


The picture on the entry page of this website shows a church in China that I have had the privilege to visit. As you approach the building, there is a broad, tiled area between the front and the street. The first thing you notice could be the majestic steeples, but more likely it is the huge lettering. The letters say, “God loves people” which is in itself very inviting. But the fact that those words are written beautifully on ramps providing access increases the invitation. As you look at the church you also see that the ramps are a central feature of the face of the building: the face of the church to the community. From a semiotics perspective, this clearly communicates so many things.

The church is communicating. They are saying we want people with disabilities here, your presence is central to who we are, we want the community to know that God loves people particularly those with disabilities, disability is associated with beauty, among other messages. This physical structure is a social ramp because of these types of things which are being communicated. This message should translate into social interactions as well. It may not perfectly, but the groundwork has been laid.

What is universal social design?


Universal social design is the application of universal design principles to social environments. A person with a physical disability who uses a wheelchair, cannot be expected to change into someone who can use steps to enter a building. Rather, the physical environment changes such that wheelchair use no longer causes someone to be excluded from a physical environment. One may raise questions about semiotics relative to the characteristics or location of a ramp, however, the physical environment changes in the face of someone who does not have the ability to change.

People have similar problems accessing social environments because of manner in which they have been “constructed.” Every culture has developed social skill standards for basic interactions between people. These relate to speaking, greetings, showing respect, and interactions between people of different ages, genders or other characteristics determined to be relevant by that culture. However in every culture, there are people who either cannot understand the social skill demands of that culture or do not have the ability to perform in completely, socially competent ways. Like the person in the wheelchair described who is unable to access some physical environments, these individuals cannot access or have been excluded from social environments. The social environment in a like manner to the physical environment needs to change if these individuals are to be included.

The types of changes might be labeled “social ramps” in that they are circumscribed efforts to change social environments such that those with social skill deficits can access those environments. We have done some preliminary thinking about the notions of universal social design and the idea of social ramps, but there is much more room for study in order to more completely understand these notions and how they might be developed.

One of the first articles discussing both social ramps and universal social design was published in the Spring issue of the Journal of the Christian Institute on Disability (JCID) by McNair & McKinney. That article will be available shortly on this website.




Defining social ramps


Social ramps are efforts by the social environment to provide access. The word “ramp” is used metaphorically to help with understanding that we are “building” something which changes the environment (social in this case) such that people have access. Social ramps are “built” in three steps. One first prepares the social environment, one then educates the social environment and then one coaches the social environment.

Preparation involves talking to the social environment about the changes to that environment that are on the horizon. This is more easily done within smaller groups such as organizations (churches, or social groups having common values). Leadership describes that changes to the social interaction patterns that are about to occur.

Education then occurs where the leadership provides examples of what types of behaviors are going to be increasingly tolerated or accepted describing how the differences might appear in specific social situations. They might also provide background which informs why toleration and openness to change is necessary. It is important to note, we are talking about social skill deficits not what might be considered immoral behavior, however, this will be more or less of an issue depending upon the group. Education can relate to aspects of the life experience of a person leading to social skill deficits (disability, mental illness, etc.). It also discusses what might be expectations for change within a particular individual. We want to both attempt to assist the individual to improve their social skills while simultaneously educating the environment towards change. We are actually attempting to change the social skills of the social environment as well, assisting it to be more tolerant of what has been called “asociality.” For those familiar with this terminology, it is also an amalgam of social and medical models of disabiliy.

Finally, coaching occurs for all members of the social community. This includes those with and without social skill deficits, and it includes correction and praise. The greatest desire of coaching as an aspect of developing social ramps is acceptance and inclusion of people with social skill deficits.

By way of example, imagine a religious setting where people are used to largely quiet participation in the service. Then someone with autism and their family comes into the social setting. The comfort of the tradition of a quiet service is threatened. Responses could be to reject/exclude the individual with autism or to facilitate a change in the social environment. Social ramps in this situation can be built with preparation, education and coaching. Perhaps the pastor tells the congregation, “We are going to have a family with a member with autism among us. This is going to change the quiet we have been used to in the past. But I want you to know that I am excited to have this family among us and hope you will reach out to them as well.” At an appropriate time, the leader then provides education. “Do you know that people with autism and their families often live in social isolation? They are desperate to find places where they can be accepted and develop friendships with other people and families. I know of a family who were rejected from 4 congregations who would not accept their family member with a disability.” Finally leadership facilitates the interactions that are desired. “I want you to feel free to ask the family with the autistic member how you might be of assistance to them. I want you to do your best to greet and interact with the person with autism. I know in our fellowship that we have special education teachers and other disability professionals. I know we also have people who are family members or friends of persons with disabilities. I am hoping you all will step up to both provide an example of how to include someone with a social skill deficit and help others to do the same. When you hear the person with autism make a noise during worship, I want you to think about our priority for inclusion over the past priority of a quiet service. Think about your reaction to that noise and work on developing a new reaction reflecting our value of inclusion.”

The development of these kinds of social ramps will ultimately benefit everyone and change the social setting to one that is more loving and accepting. But it will be extremely difficult! To change something as entrenched as interpersonal social relations will cause many to abandon your group because it is so much work. But the change in all in the environment is an outcome that all would desire.


Understanding universal design


No, universal design is not some new political theory thought up to regulate the lives of people. Actually, much of the changes we see in the physical environment as a result of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) are a reflection of the universal design principles infused there. So things like curb cuts or ramps into buildings or larger restroom stalls were built to provide access to people with disabilities, particularly wheelchair users. But what we discover, is that curb cuts benefit bike riders, parents with strollers, and delivery people among others. Changes in the physical environment end up benefiting the whole community. Before looking forward to universal social design, lets look back at universal design. Check out the link below to find out more.

Universal Design