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We're all disabled now

TECHNICAL & PRACTICE: Part 3 of the Disability Discrimination Act blurs the boundary of inclusion, widening opportunities for designers

A packed house listened to a wellrounded list of speakers at Sadler's Wells last week, to find out the implications of the third and final part of the Disability Discrimination Act (DDA), which comes into force in 2004. What will architects, in particular, have to consider to ensure that they understand and comply?

The day-long event, organised by the Employers' Forum on Disability and The Architects' Journal, was wellchaired by Phil Friend of disability consultancy Churchill & Friend. He kept the pace moving, maintained a tight schedule and added genuine humour to the proceedings. The underlying theme was 'inclusion'.

Maria Eagle MP, minister for disabled people, set her stall out by referencing her diminutive stature and her inability to reach the microphone. 'This government respects diversity, ' she proclaimed.

'It doesn't see disabled people as less valuable or different . . . we see the person rather than the impairment; we see the individual . . . [The DDA] is a countdown to an end of discrimination.' There wasn't a dry eye in the house.

Peter Williams, property expert for Eversheds, carried on the New Labour theme with a talk entitled, 'New Rights, New Obligations', suggesting that the DDA was about 'trying to put social responsibility into legislation'.

Williams' contribution was a clear and concise synopsis of the new legislation, noting the slightly different duties imposed upon employers, service providers, property owners and trade organisations. 'Under Part 3, ' he said, 'buildings do not necessarily have to be accessible, it is their services which have to be accessible' - theoretically complying by doing business on the street if a punter can't gain access to a building.

Williams also pointed out some anomalies 'which will have to be clarified by case law'. For instance, there are exemptions if compliance would increase health and safety risks for others. Landlords' refusal to allow physical changes to their property demanded by a tenant can be overridden; but what are the implications for reinstatement clauses in the lease?

Architect David Bonnett eulogised the design potential of the DDA, which was then taken up by several speakers.

'Widening our thinking, ' was how he put it, considering the design implications of accessibility rather than a narrow prescriptive attitude, or tick-box approach.

He drew on the concept of 'consumer power'. If businesses want to access the purchasing power of three million or so physically impaired people (the so-called 'disabled pound'), they will need to cater for them more sensitively.

This, the conference noted, was a fundamental driver in making welldesigned disabled access acceptable to the mainstream, and should be a good selling point for architects with reticent clients.

Julia Cassim of the Helen Hamlyn Institute, Royal College of Art, argued for positive terminology, to de-stigmatise disability. Her central argument was to challenge cognitive, as well as physical, disability.

At this point, two signers who had been frantically keeping up with the speakers were dispensed with when it became clear that there were no deaf people in the auditorium.

The audience had already been told that the definition of 'disability' under the DDA extended to the hard of hearing, people with spectacles, bad backs and depression. We, the audience, it seemed were representatively impaired. But are we really all disabled? Is it helpful to extend the definition so that otherwise healthy people consider themselves left out? (People with heavy luggage were classified as physically impaired). Can't we just advocate more considerate design?

One of the authors of the justpublished BS 8300:2001, Design of Buildings and their approaches to meet the needs of disabled people, presented it as a 'complete point of reference', although an audience member questioned how 'inclusive' a document was that cost £148. Richard Cullingworth of the BSI pointed out some of the conflicts between the BS and the current Approved Document Part M, which will remain until it is revised, probably in 2003.

Importantly, the new BS will 'become the reference point for access audits although there is no policing authority for either the DDA or BS 8300 and a certificate of compliance with the British Standard will not absolve building users from taking other steps to meet the requirements of the Act'.

Access consultant John Penton helpfully pointed out that even after the DDA comes into full force in 2004, if you are seen to be making a reasonable effort, you should be OK. As an example, replacing signage might be an immediate change but installing a lift may be scheduled for five years on. As Williams confirmed: 'You are required to do what it is reasonable for you to do.'

If your assessment of 'reasonableness' is challenged, your accessibility audit will prove invaluable. If you have recorded your accessibility thought processes, you should have right on your side.

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