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Minority report

technical & practice

The recent AJ conference on disabled access examined the implications of the DDA and the idea of reasonable compliance

The final round of the Disability Discrimination Act (DDA) comes into force in October 2004 and a full house gathered at the RIBA's Jarvis Hall to hear a series of expert practitioners, academics and commentators explain the implications of the Act for the construction industry. Even though the DDA has been introduced in tranches during the past few years, listening to many of the contributors' examples it still seems that there is a general lack of understanding about the rights and responsibilities of various stakeholders.

The general remit of the DDA embraces everyone in the supply chain: from clients to designers, and from contractors to the maintenance team.

All parties have an important role to fulfil in ensuring that the end user is exactly that: someone able to use the building and not be discriminated against in that use.

One reason for the conference was to keep the industry up to speed with changing legislation and ensure that those in attendance would come away with greater clarity and confidence on the implications of the legislation. Secondly, the audience would be better able to provide clear advice to clients of the purpose and implications of the Act. Hence, the conference was a valuable and meaningful continuing professional development (CPD) initiative. And finally, it was clear that those in attendance, by appreciating the first two points, might be better placed to take advantage of the many professional opportunities provided by the DDA.

Some additional strings to an architect's bow could include a sideline in access consultancy or a career in expert witness and ADR programmes, all the way through to the lucrative conference circuit (although none of the speakers' bank balances were improved by this event).

Hot topic

So, on an extremely warm summer's day in London, attendees climbed the entrance steps from Portland Place, negotiated a further flight down to the ante-room, pulled back the heavy ornate doors, accelerated down a temporary ramp (which has been there for as long as I can remember) and hauled themselves into a seat. Wheelchair users were gravitationally drawn to the front of the main aisles, accelerating down the sloping auditorium floor.

Bewhiskered John Penton, from the National Register of Access Consultants, chaired the event with great aplomb, ensuring that during the course of the day there was no break in continuity and, with a plethora of wellchosen anecdotes, managed to keep the audience both amused and informed.

Setting the scene in his introductory remarks, Penton suggested that the World Health Organisation's definition of 'handicap' concerned the inability of physically disabled (and able-bodied) people to relate to society. While he acknowledged that the word 'handicap' had become displaced in a more politically correct climate, he nevertheless felt it was appropriate - and indeed essential - that the concept of 'people who find it difficult to relate to society' should be the defining relationship that had to be tackled in response to the DDA. Essentially, Penton was arguing that one does not have to be physically incapacitated to be deemed to have a disability.However, his broad interpretation of what effectively constituted a 'disability' left this reviewer uneasy.

Once again, the statistic that there are 8.5 million disabled people in this country alone was bandied about as fact. In my review of last year's disability conference I noted that this was only substantiable by a clear redefinition of the word 'disabled'.

While then it was a point of genuine dispute, a year on and many on this conference platform seemed to revel in the redefinition. The Disability Discrimination Act 1995 states that a person is disabled for the purposes of the act if he or she has 'a physical or mental impairment which has substantial and long-term adverse effect on his ability to carry out normal day-to-day activities' (section 1.1).

Nowadays, the keyword 'substantial' has been dumbed down sufficiently, such that even short-sighted people like myself can now claim to be entered on to the official impairment statistics, given that my myopia allegedly reduces my ability to do day-to-day things (under the terms of the Act, such impairment does not reflect one's ability to do one's job, just one's ability to do day-to-day things). Under the liberal interpretation of the term 'impairment', things such as incontinence, an inability to concentrate and poor physical coordination are all certified impairment factors determining the classification of a disability. In this way, most drunks on a Friday night in Newcastle town centre could be added to the self-defining disability statistics.

However, many on the conference platform welcomed this broadening of the definition. By arguing for the more liberal understanding of the WHO definition of 'handicap', Penton suggested that those affected under the Act could number as many as 85 per cent of the population. This, it is suggested, represents an 'inclusive' disability policy, where instead of an us-and-them approach to social provision where we design for specific disabled groups, everyone is defined as disabled and so we will be better disposed to design inclusively, for everyone. But by broadening out the definitional base to such a degree, do we not run the risk of degrading our understanding of what I shall call 'real' disability? Equating 'nervous tension', for example, with 'schizophrenia' is a little bit of an insult, isn't it? And what would life be like if we began to believe that we really are all disabled, infirm or impaired rather than able-bodied, fit and healthy - which is what, in general, we are?

That said, Penton has a point in as much that he argues for a more generous approach to design. Designing well for a broad-based user group is a sensible and sociable thing to do. To that end, this conference was designed, he said, to provide some of the 'tools to help us develop a rational design framework'.

Excess access

George Oldham, former Newcastle City architect and now fronting the sibilant Accesssite, a company that promotes software packages to help audit compliance with the DDA, emphasised that the Act only calls for 'reasonable' efforts to be made to comply. Preparing an audit trail, therefore, ensures that all decisions are transparent and traceable, allowing architects to show their thought processes and say 'sorry if we got it wrong but at least we tried'. Whether this is a commercial or a moral position was left to the audience to decide, although it is clear that the DDA increases the potential for litigation and audit trailing is a useful way of covering your back.

Next up was Adrian Cave from the Centre for Accessible Environments, who prefaced his speech by saying that his remarks were his personal opinions and not necessarily those of the company 'because there's no correct solution' to disabled design problems. Dispelling the fears that tick-box architecture might result from a disengaged approach to the DDA, Cave enthused about the 'great design opportunities' that there will be for architects under the Act.

There are, he insisted, a number of imaginative ways of tackling a given design project under the DDA.Where features occur in existing buildings which make areas inaccessible to the disabled, consideration should be given to the removal of those features; the alteration of those features; providing means of avoiding those features; or, if none of the above are possible, then solutions may be provided by offering the service in another way.

This is a key point. The DDA says nothing about making buildings accessible, only of making services accessible. Thus, if an existing commercial premises has steps to the front, by setting up a stall outside so that wheelchair users could avail themselves of the goods and services inside the building, then effectively the premises may have complied with the letter of the DDA. Legal challenge might ensue, however, on the question of how reasonable that design solution is, how degrading (discriminatory) it is to wheelchair users to shop outside, and whether the stall truly gives access to the full range of services contained within.

Cave showed a series of slides of buildings that, in his view, reflected good and bad examples of accessible design principles - from the 'handrails that stick out and can catch clothes [of the partially sighted]' at the Laban Centre, to subtle lighting that helpfully differentiates the risers and treads at the National Portrait Gallery.

In conclusion, Cave noted that access statements are essential to explore the logistics of a scheme and to provide a defence for an architect's design. They 'justify departures from Part M guidance explain why access arrangements are reasonable, and are extremely useful if challenged in the courts'.

Scope of work

After more tea, coffee and a handful ofthose shortbread biscuits you get at conferences, AJ cartoonist Louis Hellman romped through his portfolio of drawings related to the theme of the day.We were told that in the 1970s he worked in the architects' department of what was then called The Spastics Society (now Scope). In some serious moments, he examined the historical changes between Gothic-style architecture, which expressed a 'oneness with nature', and the Victorian philosophical approach, which represented an expression of 'the elite' - connoting respectively, access for all or access for the few. It was Frank Lloyd Wright's organic approach that resulted in the removal of the threshold, he said, enjoining us to return to the humanistic 'principles of the early Modern Movement and put people at the centre'.

Jacky Sinclair, professional development manager at the Guild of Architectural Ironmongers, outlined some of the styles of ironmongery that would provide ease of access and use for the disabled. Essentially, door handles with 'returns to door': good; screw-fixed floating spindle handles: bad. Her presentation ended with a poem written by an unnamed person with cerebral palsy. 'Your attitude to people with disability may be our biggest handicap.' Er, I'm sorry, but I don't think so.

The morning session finished with a very useful exposition on the 'fiendishly complicated' legal situation by Peter Williams from Eversheds. He said that he thought the general response to the DDA was a masterly plot by the Daleks to get ramps installed everywhere in order that they might take over the planet.

He suggested foiling them (and displaying a better understanding of the real meaning of the DDA) by being more logical about ramps and steps.

As Selwyn Goldsmith has long argued, the ambulant disabled often find ramps difficult to negotiate, and so dealing with a range of disabilities comes down to a question of reasonableness. Nobody, he said, playfully rubbing his hands together, actually knows what 'reasonable' means, adding that this would inevitably be clarified through case law rather than regulatory guidelines.

He repeated that the DDA specified only that services, as opposed to buildings, be made accessible ('Building Regulations Approved Document Part M does that'), but noted that there is still uncertainty about who is responsible for making spaces such as common areas and shared foyers in existing buildings compliant.

On this point, Simon Russett of consulting engineer Hoare Lea introduced the snappily titled EN81-70:2003 Accessibility to lifts for persons including persons with disabilities, which has just become legislation.

Within the general classification process, the three classes of lift are: Type 1, with space for wheelchair forward and reverse action only; Type 2, with space for wheelchair and attendant; and Type 3, providing space for full wheelchair turning circle manouvreability. This final lift type is also known as a 17person lift. Russett urged architects to think about the interior environment of lifts as well as the surrounding lobby spaces and not leave it up to the supplier.

Picking up some of Hellman's questions, architect Axel Burrough from Levitt Bernstein Associates seemed to argue that embracing accessible design in all our civic buildings would go some way to challenging 'elitism'. (Elitism is apparently such a problem that no one needs explain it. ) Meanwhile, accessibility could make the country's cultural institutions flourish, as disabled people (remember there are 8.5 million of them/us), for years denied access up the nation's museum steps, will finally be swept inside to partake of the finer things of life. The Pompidou Centre, he said, exemplified 'the desire to make buildings seem to be more accessible'. The word 'seem'may have been unintentional.

'Theorising' aside, images of his refurbishment work to St Luke in Old Street, London, were a delight, showing the conversion of the Grade I listed building into a disabled-access music studio. Even though the lift, which rose through the stairwell was 'somewhat heavy' (it needed to be self-supporting and isolated from the rest of the structure to eliminate sound transmission), it showed that retrofit done skilfully does not have to be to the detriment of the original architectural experience.

Trip hazard

Richard Griffiths, principal of Richard Griffiths Architects (whose partner Ptolemy Dean appears in the BBC's Restoration), reiterated that the key to good conservation adaptation is firstly having a thorough knowledge of the building and then thinking laterally to circumvent any problem. The objective may be to provide longterm solutions, he said, but architects shouldn't be afraid to try 'quick-fix, reversible, trial solutions', especially for conservation schemes. This, he said, is the spirit of the 'reasonableness' clause in the Act.

As he spoke I recalled taking my daughter on a trip to see Ewenny Priory near Bridgend, south Wales. This was the building that I had studied for the architecture strand of my WJEC Art A level, and I had enthused about its history and its magical state of dilapidation for years. Unfortunately, in the 20 years since my school studies, Ewenny Priory had succumbed to accessibility; homogenised and robbed of its mystery by DDA-compliant ramps, handrails and tactile surfaces. The stuff of Benedictine medievalism that had given the building character had been wiped out more thoroughly than Henry VIII could have wished. I had nodded off.

Back at the conference, Ian Taylor, partner at architect Feilden Clegg Bradley, argued that the design of educational buildings must facilitate learning for people of all abilities.

Margeret Hickish, group leader at the Disability Design Consultancy of Buro Happold, explored the design of healthcare buildings, pointing out the obvious but not very well understood fact that disabled, frail, elderly and otherwise impaired people are the predominant user group. If access for all is to mean anything, it should manifest itself in the careful design of these medical and health facilities.

Motivation matters

All in all, this was an interesting conference which refreshed the audience's understanding of the issues and also reinforced the idea that architects need not get carried away by the magnitude of the task of compliance. However, to comply meaningfully with the DDA there will need to be more paper trails to back up the reasonableness of your decision processes and back up any legal challenge from an aggrieved party. It seems then that, while designs may or may not improve under the Act, fear of litigation may become a prime mover in showing compliance.Whether this could possibly be considered as a good thing will have to wait until the next conference, or the first legal case - whichever is the sooner.

WEBLINKS

National Register of Access Consultants www. nrac. org. uk

Accesssite www. accesssite. com

Centre for Accessible Environments www. cae. org. uk

Hoare Lea www. hoarelea. com

Guild of Architectural Ironmongers www. gai. org. uk

Levitt Bernstein Associates www. levittbernstein. co. uk

Feilden Clegg Bradley www. feildenclegg. com

Buro Happold www. burohappold. com

Richard Griffiths Architects www. rgarchitects. com

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