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Accessible buildings post-covid

The theme for ‘International Day of People with Disabilities’ this year is ‘Fighting for rights in the post-COVID era,” and aims to highlight the challenges, barriers and opportunities for people who live with disabilities, particularly following the COVID pandemic.

For the many people living with disabilities in the UK, the impacts of the pandemic have been profound, with many facing challenges such as increased reliance on care givers, lack of accessibility to healthcare spaces and reduced rehabilitation services.

In this short article, we look at why, more than ever, it is vital that we rebuild a world that is inclusive and accessible to all in a bid to help reduce the inequalities and barriers faced by the 14.1 million disabled people in the UK every day.*

In the last 12 months, there have been several consultations which focus on the future of the built environment, including ‘Planning for the Future Consultation’, ‘Raising accessibility standards for new homes’, and most recently the ‘Disability Strategy’, which found that many people were being held back in their every day lives due to the lack of accessible houses and poorly designed homes. In the UK, over two-thirds of people saying their home is not suitable for wheelchair users.ϯ

Prior to the pandemic, improvements to the accessibility of buildings had been made due to improved regulations and an increased awareness and understanding of inclusive design; and although we are seeing improvements to existing residential buildings and new builds, we now must look at improving the many public buildings and forms of transport that remain inaccessible.

The implications of an inadequately designed building or mode of transport are experienced by those living with disabilities on a daily basis, and range from limited wheelchair spaces on buses, single beds in accessible hotel rooms, being able to enjoy nightclubs with friends, inadequate bathroom facilities.

Most recently at the recent COP26 climate change conference in Glasgow (which dedicated an entire day to Cities, Regions and the Built Environment), the inaccessibility of buildings and the need for more accessibility was demonstrated, when the Israeli energy minister, Karine Elharrar, a wheelchair user, was unable to gain access to the venue and had to return to her hotel.

In the UK, all new buildings that are designated for public uses must have access for wheelchair users. However, there are still thousands of buildings around the UK that remain inaccessible, including schools, workplaces, and leisure facilities.

For many people living with a disability, finding a job, particularly in an accessible workplace remains a huge problem. Since the pandemic, the employment gap has worsened with the employment rate for disabled people now 28% lower than able-bodied people. The government has recently launched a new ‘passport’ scheme, which supports disabled university graduates find work. The passport will reduce the need for regular health assessments, and support graduates with grants of up to £62,900 to cover the cost of specialist equipment, needed to enable them to work.

Simple adaptations such as ramps, adjustable desks and monitors can be made to the workplace to make it accessible to all. Flexibility will also improve employment rates, with flexible working hours, frequent breaks, and the option to work from home. (One of our most recent projects includes a home office, to allow Alastair to work from the comfort of his own home).

But it’s not just the home and the work environment that need to be made more accessible. Many people living with disabilities find it hard to access public services and leisure facilities. Common barriers include narrow corridors, inadequate lifts, limited parking and a lack of ramps or handrails.

Poor or no access to public buildings not only affects the community, but the health and well-being of the person living with a disability. By failing to remove barriers to these buildings, people are unable to enjoy leisure facilities, access health and sporting activities, and socialise with friends and family.

So, as we look ahead to the future and ‘building back better’, we need to focus on people-centric designs, which puts inclusiveness and equality at the heart of every build to enable independence and the best quality of life for all.


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