Accessibility is a key consideration when designing for disabled users

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Ian Streets, of About Access discusses how the principles of good accessibility are imperative when designing for people with disabilities

Addressing accessibility for disabled people can take in a variety of environments and facilities. Inside a building there are doors, corridors, steps, lifts and much more. Outside you’ve got car parks, footpaths, kerbs, approaches to buildings and a number of other features.

The obvious one, usually inside but sometimes outside as well, is accessible loos. Almost all buildings will have at least one, and any that don’t should have a good reason for their absence. But recognition of the need doesn’t always equate to awareness of how it should be done.

Accessibility and good design

Providing an accessible WC is not just about ensuring privacy for the people who use them. It’s about making their lives a bit easier, about making the process of going to the loo as hassle-free as possible, and as close as possible to the experience of a non-disabled person who needs to spend a penny.

So it’s about more than making sure there is the appropriate sign on a door which is wide enough for a wheelchair-user to negotiate, although both those features are important, as is the location of signage to help disabled people find an accessible loo. Hopefully it will be in an accessible place!

Consideration should be given to each and every one of the facilities inside the cubicle. Is there enough space for the user and for their mobility equipment? And what if they’ve got bags or luggage?

The position of the toilet is important. It should be close to a wall, enabling the user to take support if necessary. It should also be within easy reach of the wash basin, soap dispenser and paper towels.

Essentially, you should think about the different impairments of the various people who will want to use the accessible WC, and about how your design can ensure no individual is at a disadvantage.

It is also worth remembering that some disabled people are capable of using any WC, but the poor layout of a single sex washroom can make it difficult for anybody to use.

Taps bring a variety of shapes, sizes and mechanisms and can present a wide range of challenges.

If they are twist taps are they too difficult to be used by people have poor manual dexterity? If they are taps that you push down, do they present a problem for people who cannot exert much force? Some have a push top that you also turn to regulate the water temperature. Where taps are fitted with motion sensors, how does a blind or partially-sighted person locate the sensor? A person with dementia might be looking for a tap to turn.

Also, while a person is standing in front of the hand basin can they reach the soap dispenser and operate it with one hand? Someone with walking aids might go to the sink and rest their sticks against the front of the basin, but they might then have to use their wet hands to grasp their sticks and go to another part of the room to dry their hands.

These things have to be thought about because good design can be creative and accessible. We’ve come across a number of instances where a lack of foresight has created problems for users of accessible WCs and for disabled people who would be capable of using a standard but well-designed, single-sex WC. They highlight how something that is obvious to some people and is often taken for granted still needs thought.

Why accessibility is important

One motorway service station we saw has communal hand basins arranged in a circle. It looks very nice but it poses a problem for anyone who uses a stick to help their mobility. If, while they use the basin, they try and rest the stick against the curved surface it will almost always fall over.

It may seem obvious but a drop-down rail in an accessible loo should be secured to the wall so a person can lower it and take support without it coming away from the wall. But that’s exactly what happened recently in a new installation. The support might have been perfectly good but the fixing was inadequate – the wall it was fastened to was of a material that was not load bearing.

We provided design guidance to one client about how to set up an accessible WC and how to lay out the room that they proposed to use. They brought in some builders who did all the work but they didn’t stick to the plan. They had laid out the room for their own convenience, and the modifications that were required were substantial and expensive.

If you want to know more, or you have a question or concern, please contact us at info@aboutaccess.co.uk

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