Design for the disabled

There is a long way to go before design is inclusive, but the Access Equality initiative is likely to bring about some improvements, argues Sarah Balmond

There are ten million disabled people in the UK, with a collective spending power of £80bn, but the potential to tap into this lucrative market is being lost. This is partly because the design industry lacks the opportunity to create the appropriate functional products, communications and services for the disabled community.

This design territory remains largely uncharted, despite the fact that the concept of ‘inclusive design’ – designing solutions for all people, regardless of age, gender or disability – is rising to the top of client and consultancy agendas.

The rise of inclusive design follows Part Three of the Disability Discrimination Act, which came into force in October last year. Part Three states that a business providing goods, facilities or services to the public must provide ‘reasonable adjustments’, giving disabled people access (DW 7 October 2004). But specific design requirements remain unclear because consultancies, clients and users don’t agree on what constitutes appropriate design solutions in the first place.

To address this challenge, Scope has teamed up with a national group of chartered surveyors, Allied Surveyors, to launch a service called Access Equality. This provides businesses with an ‘access audit’, comprising a survey of both the premises and the business practices, recommending what changes need to be made to comply with the DDA. Disabled people will contribute directly to the service, posing as ‘mystery shoppers’. Allied Surveyors will carry out the audit, but it will be up to the businesses to employ designers to implement the changes.

Scope hopes to create a kitemark system by this summer, ‘a sort of star rating, bronze, silver or gold, that will benchmark sites with standards of excellence in accessible design,’ explains chief executive at Scope, Tony Manwaring. ‘This way, the service will become aspirational. Companies will want to have this rating and it will be a desired marque,’ he says. ‘When that is achieved, we will reach a tipping point. Equal access will be about achieving higher market value rather than being perceived as a reactionary thing. The aim is to create a change of consciousness.’

Manwaring envisages a cityscape where Scope’s current logo, an equality sign designed by Citigate Albert Frank, will be recognised as a universal stamp of approval for accessible design.

He says that for too long, the disabled have been ‘disenfranchised from the design process’, with the design industry responding to the problem with ‘partial examples’, but no ‘real-scale’ action.

He believes there is too much ‘Joe Average design’ trapped in the past and says that products are often created ‘according to the lowest common denominator’, with little attention paid to their function and form for the disabled user. For example, 81 per cent of leisure facilities in the UK have one or more access barriers that prevent people with disabilities from using it, according to a report carried out by Scope last year.

To change this, Manwaring insists the spotlight must be thrown on improving product design and services. He says Scope is in meetings with numerous corporations to discuss the possibility of launching an initiative similar to Access Equality that will relate directly to product design.

The UK Institute of Inclusive Design, the British network of the European Institute for Design and Disability, works to raise the profile of inclusive design across all disciplines, including the built environment, transport, products and communication facilities.

Andrew Walker heads the organisation. He also believes product design must be improved by a sector willing to ‘reform the brief for everybody and develop new philosophies that do not hoist junk on disabled people.

‘Things don’t work for disabled people, they are unusable,’ he explains. ‘Taps on baths don’t turn easily, and there are confusing graphics and bad signage. We need lighting that does not cause glare or pools of light, entrances with bi-parting doors, colours that are not shades of grey – these are very basic things, but totally ignored,’ says Walker.

He points out that most of the problems stem from poor mechanical designs, such as chair lifts that only work when a user applies continuous pressure to a button, or lifts that have no heating equipment. ‘This design is related to performance and function. We need to make the population aware of its surroundings and the deficiencies in design, management and information.’

Consultancies and clients are making some efforts to address the issue of design for accessibility. Luxury retailer Thomas Pink is developing an additional accessible website to support its biggest global digital redesign project, carried out by AllofUs (DW 28 October 2004).

AllofUs design director Mickey Stretton says, ‘To comply with the DDA we are creating a commercial site optimised for text-based screen readers, as used by people with visual impairments.’

Stretton says designing according to the principles of accessibility ‘throws up quite interesting angles’. When creating accessible exhibition space for the Science Museum’s new Energy gallery, which opened last summer, ‘the flow, level and type of touch screens, the height of displays – all were considered for wheelchair users,’ he says.

A team of 14 designers, developers and artists were involved in the creation of the 350m2 space, which featured an array of interactive exhibits (DW 1 July 2004).

But in general, he says, accessible design remains a ‘grey area’, because ‘there is the question of what adequate provision actually is’. If things are to improve, the onus is on the design sector not merely to react to client briefs, but to take it upon itself to engage in the inclusive design process and drive the change.

1995 Disability Discrimination Act

The final phase of the act requires stores, leisure venues and workplaces to become fully accessible. According to the DDA, if it is impossible or unreasonably difficult for disabled people to use your services you may be required to: take reasonable steps to change your practices, policies or procedures, or provide a reasonable alternative method of making your services available to disabled people.

Public service providers must make ‘reasonable adjustments’ to incorporate inclusive design considerations – such as level access and wide aisles to assist wheelchair access – and use website designs that accommodate disabled users.

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