accessible services for everyone

Eoin O’Herlihy explores thinking beyond disability access, especially when conducting access audits, designing buildings, and making services accessible, usable and welcoming to everyone. Eoin provides some everyday examples of good practice whilst highlighting the benefits of a rounded approach towards making services accessible for all.

The majority of people coming to use buildings or environments are visiting to use a particular service or engage in a specific activity, such as taking out a book or using computers in a library, exercising in a gym, participating in an arts event, paying for motor tax in a public building, attending court, attending school or playing in a park or playground. But far too often, the needs of the user are ignored. For example, some of the barriers faced by people with disabilities when accessing services include:
Information barriers: One of the major barriers faced by people with disabilities when accessing public services is the lack of accessible information. This is a significant issue across a wide range of public services including education, health and access to justice. An accessible guide to the court services is one way to assist people with disabilities. Another example is contact by phone. More and more people are contacting service providers via the telephone. Therefore it is important to have systems in place to address the needs of people with hearing loss, speech impairments or people with intellectual disabilities.

■ Lack of accessible transport: One of the common barriers faced by people with disabilities is access to public transport.

■ Attitudinal barriers: A regular complaint made by people with disabilities is the lack of staff awareness when meeting and greeting customers with disabilities. Therefore it is important to provide satisfactory customer services and ensure all staff are welcoming and to ensure a high level of customer services for people with disabilities.

■ The physical environment: It is recognised that the physical accessibility of buildings is improving. However, far too often access within buildings is restricted due to poor circulation, poor wayfinding and signage, inadequate lighting, lack of visual contrast to assist people with visual impairments and an inadequate number of hearing-enhancement systems to assist people with hearing impairments.

■ Customer services barriers: Very often organisations lack a clear commitment to accessibility. In order to assist people with disabilities, service providers should have a dedicated point of contact and an access policy and action plan to highlight how they are working towards making their services accessible for all.

Universal Design and Inclusive Design have key roles to play in ensuring that the services outlined above, within purpose-built buildings and environments, are accessible to all visitors. Barriers can sometimes occur if people only think about accessibility in terms of disabled people and any issues they may experience in accessing the built environment—ignoring the bigger picture, which is about making the services accessible for all people regardless of age, size or disability.

Thinking-beyond-disability and the built environment when carrying out access audits to make the services accessible I regularly receive enquiries about what should be covered in a disability-focused access audit. In response, I advise clients that in line with the principles of Universal Design and Inclusive Design, we need to think beyond just carrying out an access audit for disabled people and consider the wider population.

We also need to think beyond the built environment and carry out access audits which assess the accessibility of the available services and any information provided. After all, inclusive access is achieved by eliminating barriers—whether physical, attitudinal, or procedural—which may otherwise inhibit full participation of all community members.

Description of Universal and Inclusive Design

Universal Design:This refers to the design and composition of an environment so that it can be accessed, understood and used to the greatest extent possible by all people, regardless of their age, size or disability. Universal Design is written into Irish national legislation in Part 6 of the Disability Act 2005 and more recently it was used as the principle on which Part M of the Building Regulations and Technical Guidance Document M 2010 has been based.
Inclusive Design:This refers to the design of mainstream products and/ or services that are accessible to, and usable by, as many people as reasonably possible ... without the need for special adaptation or specialised design.

What this really means is that when organisations are reviewing the accessibility of their buildings, information and services, they need to consider their approach to various elements, such as:
■ Providing reasonable accommodation for disabled staff members

■ Providing satisfactory customer services and ensuring all staff are welcoming

■ Providing policies that address accessibility

■ Ensuring that the day-to-day management and maintenance of buildings addresses accessibility

■ Promoting and marketing of services that are inclusive and designed to accommodate everyone

■ Purchasing accessible goods and services

■ Providing information in accessible/alternative formats and pre-visitor information that assists visitors to plan their visit/journey.

Some of the everyday accessibility examples I have experienced and use to explain these points further include:
■ In a hospital: clear and concise signage incorporating good use of colour, with symbols to identify floor levels. One hospital has incorporated low level signage with Braille.

■ In a leisure centre: travel cots placed in male and female changing facilities to assist parents with young children

■ In a national park: a baby-changing facility designed as a standalone accessible facility—a welcome facility for mobility impaired visitors

In the same park: a sink and urinal installed at an accessible height for children and people of smaller stature

In a petrol station: signage on a petrol pump with a number to call for additional assistance if required

■ In a car park at a beach: wheel stops placed within parking bays to ensure cars don’t mount footpaths, allowing all users (including those with prams) to access the beach

■ A museum website: an easy-to-find page on the site dedicated to accessibility—providing pre-visit information about the building, local public transport links, relevant contact details and assistive technology available for visitors to use and make their visitor experience more enjoyable

■ A health service provider has introduced text messaging to remind people with visual, hearing or intellectual impairments of upcoming appointments, which would be beneficial to all.

■ A library where all of the staff wear large-print name badges so that they are more accessible to people with visual impairments.

Ramp access into swimming pools makes it easier for people with mobility impairments, older people and parents with small children.

The above examples help to demonstrate just some of the considerations to bear in mind when carrying out access audits. Finally, any review must be more than an assessment of quantitative data, such as door widths and ramp gradients. An access audit should also measure the accessibility and usability of the service being provided within the building to ensure all people can equally engage with and access the service in question.

Thinking beyond disability access when designing buildings

When accessibility building regulations were first introduced in Ireland, they mainly focused on access for people with disabilities. In recent years, there has been a shift away from disability access only, and greater attention now to designing buildings for everyone. For example, in Ireland, Part M (access and use) of the Irish Building Regulations was updated in 2010 and came into operation from 1 January 2012. The main requirement of Part M states that ‘Adequate provision shall be made for people to access and use a building, its facilities and its environs.’

One of the key amendments to Irish Regulations is that there is no reference to disabled people in the requirements, and adequate provision must be provided for all people to access and use a building, its facilities and its vicinities. The requirements have been strengthened so that architects, engineers, contractors, building owners and designers must now take into account all people regardless of specific characteristics/abilities.

When explored further, the Irish Technical Guidance Document M (published in 2010 in conjunction with the new requirements of Part M) states that those involved in the design of buildings must: ‘foster an inclusive approach to the design and construction of the built environment, and adequately provide for all people regardless of their age, size or disability.’ It also indicates that the principle of Universal Design underpins the requirements of Part M. In the context of the built environment and accessibility, this means buildings and environments must be designed to meet the needs the widest range of people possible, without the need for specialised adaptation.

The following are some additional examples of key design criteria, not referenced in technical guidance, that should be considered when designing buildings to be accessible and usable for all people:
■ Parking for parents with small children: These spaces, to allow easier access for parents with young children, are generally wider than normal and situated close to shop entrances.

■ Cycling facilities: More and more people are using bicycles, but how are these users being accommodated? Useful facilities include secure storage and shower/changing facilities.

■ Baby changing facilities: Far too often public buildings are designed without the provision of baby-changing facilities. Currently there is very little guidance on how many baby-changing facilities should be provided and how they should be designed (BS8300:2009 does provide some guidance.)..

■ Mixed seating: Seats with a shallower depth than standard will benefit people of smaller stature. Seats with armrests can benefit some people when sitting into or getting out of a seat, while seating without armrests can benefit larger people.

Changing Places: Standard toilets and accessible WCs do not meet the needs of all disabled people. For example, some people with complex impairments or learning disabilities require extra facilities. Changing Places facilities provide additional features that can assist, such as a hoist

■ Designing for obese users: Design accommodations can include planning for larger equipment; avoiding wall-mounted WCs; including heavy-duty grab bars in and around showers; and providing ample space within WCs and around beds.

■ Signage and wayfinding: A good wayfinding system benefits everyone and makes it easier to understand a site and/or internal layout. It can aid independent orientation and reduce the amount of signage used, and costs. The use of meaningful icons with text labels also benefits all users.

■ Designing for different religious beliefs/cultures: Designers and building owners need to identify all end users’ needs, including people of different religious beliefs. For example, prayer rooms and wash facilities to accommodate wadu.

Conclusion

For many years we have been designing buildings and environments with the ‘accessible toilet and ramp’ approach in mind, and catering for people with mobility impairments. But this is changing. It is now recognised that accessibility affects all members of society regardless of their age, size or ability. Designers, architects, planners, engineers and all those involved with making the buildings and environments accessible are beginning to understand that they need to understand the journey sequence taken by end users in order to make the services and the specific activities people are engaging with in buildings and environments accessible.

It is also now recognised that other elements of accessibility must be included in order to make services accessible for all—ensuring that accessibility is considered beyond ‘the built environment’. There are a number of key elements that must link to ensure a high level of accessibility. These elements include accessible public transport, information and communication (i.e. pre-visit information), customer services, buildings/environments and use of public spaces. If any link of the accessibility chain does not function properly, accessibility will not work. Therefore it is critical that everyone takes responsibility for implementing accessibility to provide accessible services for all.

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