Access all areas

While Design Prima addresses the mainstream market, the mixed-ability sector is showing bright ideas. However, that’s only if accessibility is treated as a creative challenge, not a costly obligation, Trish Lorenz reports

If you are blind, wheelchair-bound or have other physical or sensory impairments, the world of work can feel out of bounds/ there are few truly accessible workspaces to be found in the UK.

The Disability Discrimination Act, which came into force in 1995, and was beefed up in 2005, aimed to ensure that disabled workers were not put at a disadvantage by workspace design. But while most employers now meet its minimum requirements, few embrace the spirit of the legislation.

As BDG Workfutures senior associate Clive Hall says, ‘In every workspace design project, the statutory DDA requirements are written in. The issue is about how much you do and whether you go beyond compliant to exemplar.’

Graeae Theatre Company is one organisation showing what is possible. Founded in 1980, Graeae was the first professional theatre group of disabled people in the UK. It is led by actors, directors and practitioners with physical or sensory impairments, and this year it moves into a new office and rehearsal space in London’s Hackney, which it bills as the first truly accessible workspace in Britain.

Designed by Artillery Architecture & Interior Design, the new offices will feature ample walkways and corridors to allow freedom of movement. Floors are set with tactile detail to guide blind and visually impaired people through the space. Acoustics have been developed to ensure there is no sound spillage, allowing sound to be clear and uncluttered, an important consideration for those with hearing impairments. Tea- and coffee-making facilities and work surfaces are height-adjustable.

But the organisation has also gone beyond the everyday and thought creatively about improved accessibility. One of its most charming decisions was to use scented trees to line corridors. Along with the pleasure that living plants bring, these trees will also act as wayfinding points for the visually impaired (for whom the sense of smell is an important aid).

And aesthetics and style have not fallen by the wayside. An important part of the brief was achieving excellence of access with panache, says Graeae artistic director Jenny Sealey. Toilets will be inherently practical but will also have a theatricality about them, avoiding the sterile clinical aesthetic that is the norm. ‘The whole space has an urban, offbeat feel and will be a world away from those Victorian institutionalised buildings that people usually associate with disabled people,’ says Sealey.

The ultimate aim of the design is for accessibility to be permeated within the skin of the building – maximum function with minimum fuss. ‘I would hope that a disabled person could arrive at this building and work, create, rest and socialise in ease and comfort without being aware of any “special” provisions,’ adds Sealey.

Graeae is not the only organisation that has embraced the DDA. BDG Workfutures has worked with clients including the Equality and Human Rights Commission and Network Rail, which have taken real steps to improve accessibility with actions such as highlighting walkways in contrasting colours and basing colour schemes around the visually impaired. ‘If you’re partially sighted, some colours can be seen as a change in level,’ says Hall. ‘We use software that shows how people with impaired sight see things, and make sure colours work both for the visually impaired and the design as a whole.’

But the truth remains that few organisations are prepared to take comprehensive steps. Budget is clearly an issue – Graeae has been generously funded to the tune of £1.78m by Arts Council England through the Lottery Programme. And, according to Hall, the DDA legislation itself is not always helpful. He says it can be mired in pettiness and he’d like to see a more discursive approach. ‘What we’d like to see is a greater openness to discussion rather than a reliance on measurements,’ says Hall. ‘Environments should be all embracing but still fun to work in, and sometimes the statutory requirements are a catch-all that don’t tease out what’s really important.’

It’s true that legislation is rarely a creative driver, but designers must bear some of the responsibility, too. There are challenges in improving accessibility, not least appreciating the varied needs of disabled users. Danish design group Bosch & Fjord has created meeting rooms that are easiest to enter if you are disabled (preferably with strong arms) and an exhibition that is best experienced if you are visually impaired. But Bosch & Fjord director Rosan Bosch concedes that designing workspaces that are fully accessible ‘is tricky’.

‘Many of our designs take the different needs of disabled people into account and we work a lot with the senses, but working in this area is a challenge,’ says Bosch. ‘We have learned that when designing a room or an object that is custom-made for the visually impaired, the design might not answer the purpose for the hearing-impaired.’

And, as Hall points out, there has yet to be a fully integrated approach to inclusive design. ‘We provide dual-height worktops in coffee points but often find that dishwashers won’t fit. Product design has to go further than it does,’ he says.

Part of the issue also lies in perception. Too often, disability requirements are seen as an onerous obligation rather than a creative challenge. ‘We have turned compliance with the DDA into a positive, powerful creative force in its own right,’ says Sealey. It would be interesting to see how workspaces would develop if more designers and clients took a similar approach. ‹

The Disability Discrimination Act

• It is unlawful for employers to discriminate against disabled people for a reason related to their disability, in all aspects of employment.
• Employers have a duty to make ‘reasonable adjustments’ to ensure disabled people are not put at a substantial disadvantage by any physical feature of the workplace.
• This applies to working spaces and work-related benefits such as access to recreation or refreshment facilities.

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