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Maritime inclusive environments and practice

by Scott Rains, Rolling Rains Report and
Sherri Backstrom, Waypoint Yacht Charter Services

Author copyright Rains & Backstrom September 2008

Human-centered seaworthiness

Maritime tradition as old as recorded history shapes human experience. As a species born on land yet fascinated with water humans endlessly take to waterways and the sea in ships.

Seaworthiness is a measure of the fit between the environment a watercraft must navigate and the ability of humans to use that craft for their own purposes. Universal Design captures this essential dynamic at the core of seaworthiness.

Universal (or "Inclusive") Design is a set of seven principles created to maintain balance between environmental and human requirements during the design, construction, and use of an environment, a product, or a product-service system.

  1. Equitable use: The design does not disadvantage or stigmatize any group of users.
  2. Flexibility in use: The design accommodates a wide range of individual preferences and abilities.
  3. Simple, intuitive use: Use of the design is easy to understand, regardless of the user's experience, knowledge, language skills, or current concentration level.
  4. Perceptible information: The design communicates necessary information effectively to the user, regardless of ambient conditions or the user's sensory abilities.
  5. Tolerance for error: The design minimizes hazards and the adverse consequences of accidental or unintended actions.
  6. Low physical effort: The design can be used efficiently and comfortably, and with a minimum of fatigue.
  7. Size and space for approach and use: Appropriate size and space is provided for approach, reach, manipulation, and use, regardless of the user's body size, posture, or mobility.
It is:

… a framework for the design of places, things, information, communication and policy to be usable by the widest range of people operating in the widest range of situations without special or separate design. Most simply, Universal Design is human-centered design of everything with everyone in mind.

Universal Design is also called Inclusive Design, Design-for-All and Lifespan Design. It is not a design style but an orientation to any design process that starts with a responsibility to the experience of the user. (Source: Adaptive Environments - Institute for Human Centered Design)

In a time where advances in materials and construction have met with new markets for watercraft, Universal Design has been applied successfully to kayaks, yachts, tenders and cruise line mega-ships - and everything in between. This democratization of boat ownership and the migration of leisure, sport, and luxury activity to a water environment by an ever-widening range of people both reflects and advances contemporary expectations of full social inclusion for people with all ranges of abilities.

The Waypoint-Backstrom Principles

Universal Design is a land-based tradition originated by quadriplegic architect Ron Mace and his colleagues during the 1970's. Systematically applied and modified to the maritime environment this design approach began to be known as the Waypoint-Backstrom Principles in the early 2000's through the work of Sherri Backstrom and colleagues gathered around Waypoint Yacht Charter Services.

The Waypoint-Backstrom Principles assume the application of the principles of Universal Design but the highly changeable nature of water-borne environments brings into even higher relief issues of entry and egress (embarkation and debarkation), intermodal transport, personal safety, and human impact on the natural environment.

It is hoped that these principles will continue to shape the maritime tradition toward the day when all people or all ranges of abilities may freely and safely "take to the sea in ships."


1) Begin with Universal Design
The principles of Universal Design are an essential element of seaworthiness. Assumptions of the abilities (physical, mental, or sensory functionality) of crew or passengers as constant over time in any single individual or uniform throughout the population of owners and users of the watercraft throughout its lifespan are to be questioned. Design decisions made on exclusionary assumptions about human users are to be challenged as creating an unseaworthy craft.
2) Design for self-sufficiency
Watercraft are the insertion of a terrestrial into a maritime environment. Issues of provisioning, fueling, and waste disposal introduce unique design constraints that require balanced attention to both social sustainability (Universal Design) and environmental sustainability (green design).
3) Design for extraordinary conditions
Maritime practice traditionally assigns clearly-defined shipboard roles and responsibilities. Design assumptions follow. Assumptions about the abilities (physical, mental, or sensory) of the idealized role-holder as they are designed into products, spaces, and practices may prove to be disastrous in emergency situations. In such cases the only person available to fulfill a lifesaving task may not share the ability set assumed in the design whether that is through temporary injury of the crew, or substitution of a child, elderly person, or person with a permanent disability. Designing for extraordinary conditions is a principle that accepts current evolving definitions of disability as the interaction between ability (functionality) and environment (design; social response to variety in human functionality). It "imagines" disability as a normal consequence of life and designs for it proactively.
4) Design for modularity and revision
While a core tenet of Universal Design is that the design be sufficient "without special or separate design" the frequency of maintenance necessary for watercraft, especially in a saltwater environment, leads to frequent opportunities for upgrade to accommodate the range of abilities in crew and passengers. Original ship design that envisions modular upgrading and maintenance protocols that actively query shipboard experience for opportunities to design for improved inclusion are to be encouraged.
5) Design for seamless intermodal transfer
Sophisticated and efficient systems have been developed to load and unload watercraft, haul them ashore, or transport them. Similar breadth of imagination and technology is often lacking in relation to human passengers. Assumptions that all crew and passengers can safely and independently embark, move freely through, and disembark a vessel are to be examined thoroughly at the design stage and reviewed systematically through the vessel's operation. Special attention is to be paid to the effect of climactic and environmental conditions, aging, and temporary or permanent disability on the part of crew and passengers. Intermodal transfer by its nature involves more than design of a single vessel. It requires attention to the interface between vessels and docking systems (fixed or temporary), tenders, and emergency evacuation systems.

The current world standard document on this topic is entitled Accessible Boating Facilities: A Summary of Accessibility Guidelines for Recreation Facilities finalized in 2002 and published by the United States Access Board in 2003 with subsequent updates and commentary.

For further information

Dr. Scott Rains, Consultant
Email: srains@oco.net
Skype: RollingRains

Sherri Backstrom
Director, Waypoint Yacht Charter Services
Email: sherri@waypointcharter.com

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