Ian Streets of About Access discusses avoiding accessibility problems by avoiding assumptions at the start of the construction process.
In one of the more shocking examples which we’ve seen of appalling assumptions, a motorist turning up once a week to play five-a-side football at a village leisure centre routinely parked in the disabled bay.
His logic was that a disabled person wouldn’t need the space because they wouldn’t have reason to visit a leisure centre anyway. We don’t know whether he was serious, or seriously misguided, and we haven’t got enough space here to go into all the reasons why he was wrong.
But we would make the point that ignorance doesn’t have to be so spectacular to present a problem for disabled people. Even a slight assumption can lead to poor design of facilities and unsatisfactory provision of services. An open mind and maybe a little research can make such a difference.
Common assumptions which can lead to problems arise from failing to anticipate the extent to which disabled people retain a level of independence, and failing to recognise that employees as well as visitors may need adjustments to be made to a business environment.
Many people are familiar with the concept of the Purple Pound, which is the estimated annual spend of disabled people and their companions. It’s calculated to be around £249 billion, a significant amount for the UK’s business community and a sum which takes into account that many disabled people will generally travel as a couple or as members of a larger party.
The message is that if a business, for example café or restaurant, can’t accommodate the needs of the disabled individual it will lose their custom and that of their companions. It’s a valid concern but it shouldn’t encourage people to assume that disabled people will never go anywhere alone.
Avoiding accessibility problems
During a recent access audit, walking around with several staff and talking about the features of the building, it came up in the conversation that wheelchair users would always have a companion with them. But a lot of wheelchair users go out on their own. Many people value their independence highly, and disabled people are no different in that.
They may not want to take a companion with them everywhere they go and they are comfortable looking after themselves – provided the facilities and services are accessible enough for them to do that.
It is wrong to assume that improvements to accessibility should not be made because a disabled person will always travel with a carer, and it is even more wrong to assume that a disabled person will happily accept assistance from a stranger if facilities prove to be inadequate.
Nor should assumptions be made about the nature of a person’s impairment. A person in a wheelchair may not necessarily need as much assistance as some people might think. A person who does not use a wheelchair may still have a hidden impairment, and in anticipating this you should be thinking about such things as hearing loops, décor, signage and the detailed layout of the accessible loo.
All of these concerns also apply to employees of a business, and areas designed only for use by staff still need to be as accessible as public areas. You may not know if any of your colleagues has an impairment, and you cannot know whether a colleague will acquire an impairment in the future or whether you will hire someone who has an impairment.
As part of a recruitment process, you can ask if a candidate needs reasonable adjustments to be made for attendance at the interview, such as step-free access, a signer, someone to accompany them. But once you have established that you have to forget about the impairment and go through the interview in the same way as you would for a non-disabled person.
The safest and most sensible approach is to make sure your workplace is as accessible as possible and to be alert to the possibility that a colleague’s requirements may change over time.
After we made a presentation to an organisation in the hospitality sector, one member of the audience told us of a problem they’d identified in their accounts department. A member of staff had started to make a lot of errors and the situation was so severe that disciplinary action was becoming a possibility. But after a conversation the manager found out that the employee’s vision was deteriorating. The company installed some new software that increased the size of the text and that solved the problem. But they only became aware of the situation because they sat down and discussed the problem and because they recognised that while the employee’s eyesight had deteriorated, their ability to do the job had not and they were still an asset to the business.
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