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Last edited 08 Feb 2021
Designing for disability
Two apparently innocuous questions are asked at the start of some training courses:
- What is the first word that springs to mind when the word disabled access is raised?
- Who has a member of their family who has a disability?
The answers are always surprising.
Almost without exception, over the last 25 years of work in this sector, the answer to question one is wheelchairs and the answer to the second question is usually ‘no’.
Therein lies the biggest challenge we face in making our built environment accessible and inclusive. People’s understanding of disability and the challenges disabled people face is far from the reality.
The statistics are a little vague but the consensus is that there is something of the order of 12.5 million people in the UK who have a condition that is defined as a disability in the Equality Act 2010. The Act replaces the Disability Discrimination Act although reference is still made to the DDA (of itself probably an indication of the lack of understanding). The population of the UK is currently 66 million so the disabled population is 17% or so of the total population; the chances are that you know someone with a disability very well.
 Defining a disability
So, what is the definition of a disability? The Equality Act states that it is a physical or mental condition that affects a person’s ability to carry out day-to-day activities providing that condition is long term (normally considered to be 12 months or longer); adverse in relation to the service they are seeking and substantial (not trivial). Wheelchair users are protected but so are people with vision and hearing loss, learning disabilities, cancer, continence issues, locomotion and reaching conditions and many more; the reality is that you almost certainly do know someone who has a disability and, surprise surprise, people who have such conditions often did not realise they were protected by the Act.
The provision of ramps and lifts which assist wheelchair users are highly commendable and much appreciated, but this sector only amounts to something of the order of 6% of the disabled population. Many other disability sectors have conditions that are not immediately obvious, and this can cause real issues for designers and service providers when it comes to meeting their needs. Of the 11 million disabled people in the UK, 1 in 7 have significant hearing loss, 2 million have significant visual impairment, 360,000 totally blind, 3.2 million have locomotion, reaching and dexterity problems so we should be providing spaces to suit them too.
 A moral obligation as well
There is a moral duty to treat people equally and fairly but there is also a financial incentive too: the disposable income of the disabled sector is thought to be of the order of £250 billion so it is a piece of cake worth fighting for if you are a business. So, whether inclusive design and the provision of accessible services is a moral, legal or financial issue the case is simple. Everyone should think about inclusivity in its broadest sense.
Firstly, you must engage with the needs of the people you serve, it is good to talk. There is no point, unless you have a legal duty to do so, to provide an accessible toilet or ramp when an employee has had surgery that prevents them sitting at a standard desk. It is frustrating to see the amount of money wasted in providing facilities that are never used. Not only is it a waste but it undermines the real needs of disabled people. It is vital to undertake a positive and meaningful dialogue to make sure people get what they need. Secondly, it is a case of training, followed by training and yet more training. If staff understand the needs of the disabled community, the broader disability agenda and a few tips on how best to communicate, their confidence grows, the service provision improves and probably the bottom line too. The biggest improvement a business can make is to provide details about what it can and cannot provide so disabled people can make their own decisions about using it.
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