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Designing for the disabled is a statutory duty. But is it always appropriate, or does it discriminate against the majority?

The call for public buildings to be made accessible to people in wheelchairs was unheard of when I took on the job of producing a book, to be called Designing for the Disabled back in October 1961. Since then, the cause has prospered: 1967 saw the issuing of the first British Standard on access for the disabled to buildings; 1987 the introduction of the Part M building regulation; and 1995 the passing of the Disability Discrimination Act, bringing with it statutory access rights for disabled people. To implement and enforce those rights the Disability Rights Commission, an oligarchal agency controlled by disability activists, was set up last year. For architects who are in the business of designing public buildings, minority rule prevails.

In Britain, the rest of Europe, the US, Japan, Australia and elsewhere, the call in recent times has increasingly been for universal design - access for everyone and social inclusiveness. Universal design, its proponents customarily claim, can be brought into operation alongside for-the-disabled design - the two, they assert, are compatible. They are not! In my latest book, Universal Design, I demonstrate why minority rule defies universal design, and why special for-the-disabled design is socially exclusive and offensively discriminatory.

For architects who design buildings to the principles of universal design, the methodology is bottomup. The constant aim is to extend the accommodation parameters of normal provision as far as can be, and by so doing to treat disabled people as normal, minimising the need for special provision to be made for them. The pyramid of building users shown in figure 1 relates to new public buildings, but the principles of universal design are equally applicable to alterations to existing buildings and new housing.

The Disability Discrimination Act draws on the medical model of disability, and it is only people with physical, sensory or mental impairments who are entitled to claim that they are the victims of architectural discrimination. Given this minority rule, architectural discrimination elsewhere is countenanced, especially in the provision of sanitary conveniences. For example, the women in row 3 of figure 1 are obliged to queue where men do not, a common reason being that the architect regularly divides cloakroom spaces 50-50 on his plan drawing (or hers, since women architects are not immune from the misdemeanor); figure 2 illustrates the discriminatory effect of this.

Similarly, a mother (or father) with a toddler or infant in a pushchair is subjected to architectural discrimination because a typical WC compartment is so small as to be virtually unusable 1(figures 3).

The guidance in the Part M Approved Document is based on the capabilities of an independent wheelchair user, and the effect of applying the design standards presented in it for turning spaces (figure 4) can be discrimination against assisted wheelchair users, electric scooter users and the users of sideby-side double pushchairs.

For universal design, prescriptive design standards are out of order.

Accommodation parameters are extended as far as is appropriate, with space dimensions - the spaces that architects show on plan drawings - being variable. Broadly, the axiom is 'make it more spacious'.

More problematical for the architect who looks to apply the principles of universal design is what to do about the height of fixtures and fittings.When placed in a washroom or bathroom; there is no level at which a single washbasin can be fixed so that it is convenient for all its users (figure 5). The level at which it is commonly fixed, with its rim at about 820mm above floor level, may suit short people and wheelchair users, but is uncomfortably low for the majority of standing adults. In the context of universal design, at what point is the demarcation line to be drawn? Is it fair to discomfort the large majority of a building's users to cater for a minority? With regard to the height of wash basins a consideration ought to be the profile of potential users; for example, in staff cloakrooms in public or employment buildings it could well be reasonable for basin rims to be at about 950mm above floor level. The urinal bowl is a further example of a fixture which when placed singly is not convenient for all its users.

The imposition on architects of requirements geared to satisfy the special needs of independent wheelchair users, is most apparent inside passenger lifts in public and employment buildings. In compliance with the instructions in the Part M Approved Document, the controls are set between 900 and 1200mm above floor level (figure 6), the effect of which is to inconvenience the people who most frequently use them, standing adult people.

Were the design of public buildings to be governed by the principles of universal design, efforts to eradicate architectural discrimination would not be aimed exclusively at people with disabilities. Public WC facilities would be planned so that women would be no less well catered for than men. Within them, WC compartments would have sufficient space for the generality of users to be able to manage them comfortably, along with providing access for pushchair users. All guestrooms in new hotels would be accessible to all, wheelchair users included.

The obstacles in the way of achieving this common sense vision are forbidding. There would have to be regulations that would present architects with clear instructions on what they must do, desirably in the form of minimum design standards.

That could be problematical, since for universal design there cannot be common prescriptions for all the features of all kinds of buildings.

Given the current situation, the advantage the disability oligarchy has is that for regulatory purposes it can apply standardised design prescriptions, based on the capabilities of an independent wheelchair user. In so doing, it tends to exaggerate its statistical claims. As Bert Massie, chairman of the Disability Rights Commission, and long-time wheelchair user, comments: 'There are 800,000 wheelchair users in the UK, 'which if it were a reliable estimate would mean that wheelchair users constitute 1.3 per cent of the total population, or one person in every 75.

Aside from employing a definitive figure that cannot be responsibly substantiated, Massie misses the point. For wheelchair users, relevant research data is available in the form of the findings of the DoE sanitary provision research project undertaken in the early 1990s 2.For an average public building on a typical day, it estimated that some 0.12 per cent (or one in 850 of all users) were wheelchair users, and that 0.01 per cent (one in 10,000) were wheelchair users who were able to get out and about independently. The population with which the DDA's access provisions are concerned is not the national population of disabled; it is disabled people who use or might use public buildings, and that is a very much smaller population.

For the foreseeable future, the disability oligarchy will be able to maintain its minority rule. To support its endeavours it will be armed with three official documents concerned exclusively with what has to be done for disabled people, in particular independent wheelchair users. They are the Part M Approved Document, the updated BSI Code of Practice on access for the disabled due to be issued later this year, and a practical guide advising small businesses how to meet the DDA's access requirements which the Disability Rights Commission plans to issue later this year.

Assuming that the government will not be introducing any statutory controls aimed at generating universal design so long as for-the-disabled requirements remain in place, the avenues for redressing the balance are limited. Architects could advise their clients of the merits of universal design, or clients their architects.

Local authority planning departments could amend their development policies to cover universal design, and ask their access officers to extend the scope of their guidance. We need to have a much more flexible response to these issues. Until then, education and exhortation will be in order.

Selwyn Goldsmith is the author of Universal Design, published by Architectural Press 1Research has indicated that an averagesize WC compartment in a public building in England has an internal depth of 1,472mm, a width of 825mm and an inopening door giving a clear opening width of 634mm (Goldsmith, S Designing for the Disabled, The New Paradigm , p180, Architectural Press,1997). Its internal area (1.21m 2) is virtually the same as figure 3 (1.20m 2)2 Relevant tables and commentary are in the report of the DoE sanitary provision research project, Sanitary Provision for People with Special Needs (DoE,1992) Note: the measures cited here are drawn from a survey made in 1991 (Designing for the Disabled, The New Paradigm , p187)

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