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This past year has highlighted a number of things that we have typically taken for granted. Our health is often considered a constant and assume the things we can do today will be possible in years to come. Inclusive design is both a life line for those with limited mobility and an underappreciated and under-resourced safety net for those that may need to rely on it in the future, whether through illness, injury or age.

In this article, George Hooton, from Hootons Commercial Ltd, discusses the importance of greater accessibility and provides an idea of what we should be aspiring towards.

Personal experiences

Having a physical disability myself, I have experienced first-hand the failings and dangers posed by the built environment and its transport infrastructure. This has given me a greater insight into the challenges faced by others with limited mobility, while appreciating how easy it is for abled bodied people to overlook physical barriers that they manage with relative ease.

I went into the property industry with the aspiration of becoming a chartered surveyor so that I could make a positive impact on the built environment and highlight what I would consider a basic right, which is equal access for all, irrespective of age, background or ability.

Raising the bar above the bare minimum

Currently the main piece of legislation determining accessibility standards is the Equality Act 2010. This states that any business providing goods and services to the general public must make ‘reasonable adjustments’ to ensure anyone can access that service. While the act does not define what is ‘reasonable’ it sets out three broad requirements for businesses;

  1. A business must take reasonable steps to alter any policies or procedures that put those with a disability as a substantial disadvantage
  2. The business owner is to anticipate and determine what auxiliary aids or services are needed for those with disabilities that would otherwise put them at a substantial disadvantage
  3. Businesses must take reasonable steps to remove or alter any physical barriers that make it impossible or unreasonably difficult for those with disabilities to make use of those facilities provided.

In my opinion this represents the bare minimum in terms of accessibility requirements, yet sadly despite this, some businesses only start to think about social and physical adaptations once challenged. This can be seen with a growing number of legal cases over the accessibility of buildings and transport by those with a disability.

Arguably the main reason for not implementing greater accessibility into our built environment is cost. While completely understandable that an individual or small business will not want to spend, or cannot afford potentially thousands of pounds on putting ramps, lifts or disabled toilets into their premises this is now both a legal and ethical necessity. That said, the financial investment required can be taken into account when deciding what is a ‘reasonable adjustment’ and those adaptations can often be considered under tax allowances. 

Enabling freedom of movement

The true extent of poor access within the UK is not widely known. It is an issue that can be seen in transport, education, commercial buildings, residential properties, on the pavements and in public spaces.

This is also not a problem affecting a small minority. Across the globe, 25% of the entire population is either directly or indirectly affected by a disability (UN and World Bank). In the UK, over 11 million people have a disability, with 1.2 million wheelchair users, over 2 million blind and 9 million deaf or hard of hearing (Disabilitysport.org.uk). These figures also do not take into account our ageing population who may be experiencing mobility problems but not technically classed as ‘disabled’.

Recognising this, I believe we are now at a turning point where these limitations and injustices are starting to be seen more widely, thanks in part to calls for more diversity and inclusion in the workplace. It is clear however that we have not yet realised this problem in its entirety as we continue to make the same mistakes.

By creating quotas for new builds, we in essence provide a small amount of accommodation for those with limited mobility or special needs, but continue to restrict access to the rest of the scheme. Similarly, some adaptations implemented require external assistance to put up and remove when needed, acting as a short-term solution that continues to restrict independent living. There is also an issue where adaptations are turned off or locked, such as lifts and disabled toilets, until specifically asked. This means access is only provided when requested or challenged, restricting freedom of movement.

Ultimate goal

By continuing with a reactionary approach to accessibility, through adaptations and add-ons to buildings, rather than a consolidated effort to re-establish access for visitors, we will not be able to provide a fairer and more equal society.

I believe the approach taken to inclusive design should be to enable and promote independence, giving each customer, employee or visitor the same experience. This is achievable with greater recognition of those challenges faced by people with a disability and a universal goal to unite and form a system where accessibility is guaranteed for all.

 

George can be contacted via email: george@hootons.co.uk.

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