Skip to content

Building A World People Can Use

Written by Rebecca Brown

Imagine going to a cafe for a drink and snack. At some point you need the loo – you go to the bathroom but discover the toilet seat is higher than your waist! Somehow you manage to clamber up, unfortunately touching parts of a toilet you would prefer you didn’t have to touch. When you’re finished, you jump down and go to wash your hands. But – disaster! – the sink is higher up than your head! You can’t even see into it, let alone reach the taps. You look around for something you could use to stand on and give you some extra height but there’s nothing. You eventually give up, heading for the exit, only to discover that the door handle is barely within reach. You can just about touch it with your finger tips and manage, with great effort, to prise it open and leave.

When you walk out onto the street there are vehicles at least 100 times your weight whizzing by. The front of these vehicles is higher than your head: if they hit you your whole body will take the full impact.

Later you go out to eat but when you arrive at the restaurant the manager won’t let you in. She says they have a policy that bans people like you from eating there. She’s vague about why – apparently there’s limited space? But you’re not particularly big. Eventually she says that your presence will diminish the enjoyment of the other customers.

Our social and built environment is often not kind to children. Much as for people with disabilities, children who would otherwise be able to act with a reasonable amount of independence are forced to rely on parents or other carers because of the exclusionary design of facilities or the danger posed to them by cars. Of course, we are familiar – and often very comfortable – with the idea have little autonomy and must be protected by those responsible for their welfare. What’s less appreciated is that small children are often very motivated to act independently. Presumably this obsession with performing tasks at the edge on one’s competency is an important motivation for young humans which facilitates the rapid acquisition of the skills needed for survival. But it means that, in environments where they cannot perform tasks on their own – either because of physical impossibility, danger, or social rules – they are constantly frustrated and excluded.

This is not inevitable, but is a decision we have taken to structure the social and built environment in such a way that excludes children and places them at risk if they are not constantly guarded by carers. As the important work of disability rights advocates has shown, disability is often, importantly, a product of design rather than a feature of people’s bodies. The same can be said for children: their dependence is a product of the environment they exist in. A two-year-old child in a neighbourhood with wide flat pavements and low or no traffic can happily walk or scoot safely along with a carer keeping an eye out from a distance. The same child transplanted onto streets with frequent obstacles and fast-moving traffic and a lot of ambient noise will need to be monitored much more closely. Some parents need to attach ‘reins’ to their children in order to keep them safe in these environments.

And some countries have made very different decisions. Famously, young children in Japan are afforded far more independence than those in the UK. An exaggerated version of this is depicted in the ‘reality’ tv show ‘Old Enough!’ where 2 and 3 year old children set off alone (though watched by the tv crew and cameras) to conduct an errand for their family – such as picking up some groceries a kilometre from their home. The smallness of the children and the distances they travel in the tv show does not reflect typical practice in Japan. But Japanese children are, nonetheless, able and permitted to undertake independent tasks that would certainly raise eyebrows in the UK.

It seems that the relevant differences relate both to the design of urban areas and policies around, for instance, car use, as well as social norms and expectations. Regarding the former, for instance, Japan largely prohibits on street parking and cars travel more slowly (and carefully) along urban streets, meaning that streets are easier and safer to navigate – children can more easily be seen and car drivers are more aware of their need to yield to pedestrians. Children can thus travel around more easily and safely on foot. Regarding the latter, because it is safer and more feasible for children to walk places on their own, expectations match this – children are permitted on encouraged to do so. At the same time, there are stronger expectations that adults will look out for and ensure the safety of children who are not their own. In this sense, children out ‘alone’ (i.e. without their parents or carers) are much less alone than they would be in a country like the UK. If they get in to difficulty or seem distressed or at risk, there is an expectation that nearby adults will step in and support the child.

Just as we would argue that people with disabilities should be afforded the same rights as able bodied people, and ensure the built and social environment facilitates their independence and safety, children’s rights to move about and engage in social life should be respected, too. Disability and age are both ‘protected characteristics’, meaning that it is illegal to discriminate against people on their basis. Yet the part of the Equality Act 2010 that relates to age discrimination does not apply to people under the age of 18. This means restaurants can ban children without doing anything illegal, yet to ban someone because of a disability would be – rightly – both illegal and abhorrent.

So why do we treat children as if they matter less than adult humans? Why, in the UK, are there rarely toilets or sinks at a height a child can use? Why do we prioritise moving cars around quickly over having streets children can use safely and independently? It seems to me that we too readily accept the idea that children lack autonomy and are too quick to forget that they are people. As people, albeit vulnerable people, children should be respected and facilitated to act independently. It seems inappropriate to argue that, since children can be noisy and disruptive, it is acceptable to ban them from certain restaurants. Or that since they have carers who can hold their hand as they walk down the street, or lift them onto a too-high-up toilet seat, we need not design the world so that they can do these things on their own. This neglect of children’s autonomy is obviously a burden for parents, but the ones who are really harmed here are young people themselves. Because children are inevitably somewhat dependent on others, we treat them as if their independence is of no consequence. As ever, because the ones who suffer most are the least able to recognise and articulate this injustice, it is very easy to ignore.

Note: Thanks to Dorsa Amir whose tweet motivated this post.

Share on

1 Comment on this post

  1. “So why do we treat children as if they matter less than adult humans?” This question that is mentioned in the article we should have asked during the covid pandemic. At that times vulnerable children were not treated as human beings but just as living objects that could infected anybody.

Join the conversation

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Notify me of followup comments via e-mail. You can also subscribe without commenting.