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The consultation process over disabled access to the new Sadler's Wells was well-planned and thorough. How has it worked in practice? Designed for access

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There is something very exciting about a building going to the wire on opening, especially when it has triumphed over adversity as Sadler's Wells has. There was an escalating drama of 'will they or won't they make it', culminating in the opening night when the curtain rose late, but to cheers, with the award of the performance licence.

But this 'just-in-time' approach means that some elements are not in time at all, and no one would deny that the building as it opened was distinctly rough round the edges. This has one particularly unfortunate effect: a project team which tried rigorously and imaginatively to provide universal access is not yet able to appraise the effects of its work. Many of the specially considered facilities are not yet in place; other parts of the building are more awkward to use than they will be eventually.

As a result, a veil of silence has descended over this part of the project. Although a year ago the theatre was talking openly about the 'Free for All' group it set up to participate in the design process, now it refuses to comment or issue any information. Although at press conferences just prior to the opening, members of the group were present and contributing, now they have taken a collective decision not to comment until the building is fully finished in the first half of next year.

This is a pity, since the process of consultation was one of the most thorough and carefully thought out of any building. Inspired by the requirement in the application form for a lottery grant to 'consider the needs of disabled people of all kinds', the theatre set up the Free for All consultative group. Members of the consultative group were paid for their time and work. They comprised:

those with physical and sensory disabilities

those for whom attitude, control of the environment and language are instrumental in providing good access.

They met, throughout the design process with:

the architects and design team

Sadler's Wells staff.

Others who were involved in the process were:

the project co-ordinator

an access expert

Sadler's Wells' project director.

They defined disability access as 'ensuring that a building can be entered by everybody and that all its facilities are available to all, whatever their disability, without relying on the goodwill of strangers. Full disabled access not only guarantees that disabled people can travel around the building, but that they can open doors, turn on lights, buy a drink, get on to the stage, communicate with other people or make themselves a cup of tea. Also essential to disability access is disability equality training for management and staff.'

The group was able to discuss the members' different and sometimes conflicting needs, and where compromises were necessary the members made them, rather than having them foisted upon them. They presented the architects and designers with problems to solve, and reviewed the design solutions.

To prevent this being just a talking shop, the theatre drew up a contract with an obligation to prioritise the needs of the access group and for the consultants to implement its recommendations.

The group quickly set up some conventions for its consultative meetings. Every meeting was chaired by a disabled person. The convention of talking through the chair was strictly implemented, as it was particularly important for the sign-language interpreter. Individuals gave their names before speaking to help the visually impaired consultant.

Through trial and error, ways of working were established, breaking the building into areas, and into types of materials and components. All those without a previous architectural training learned a lot about interpreting drawings.

The main entrance was a prime example of the conflicting needs that could arise.

deaf people preferred glass doors, so people approaching could be seen if the doors were closed

partially sighted people disliked glass doors as they often crash into them

blind people wanted a textured pavement with audible beacons

those with mobility problems disliked textured flooring because their sticks slipped or they lost their balance

people with learning difficulties were worried about confusing advertising swamping them with too much information

wheelchair users were concerned with entrance width, obstacles and gradients.

But they were unanimous about what they didn't want - the three sets of swing doors that the architect had proposed. The solution that the architect came up with in consultation was the air curtain.

Other areas were the subject of equally heated debate, and it is easy to understand why the group is not prepared to comment until all the elements are in place and working.

There were criticisms of the process as well, but the members of the group felt generally that it was worthwhile and that they had learned a lot. Close study and feedback once the building is complete should allow it to be developed further on future projects.

The team produced a checklist for those wanting to set up a similar group.

1 Get a commitment from the senior management of your organisation to prioritise disability access.

2 Get a commitment from senior management to allocate funds for access provision, using the advice of an access auditor/expert who will draw up a wish list and cost it. This list should use Part M requiremnts as a starting point only. In addition:

put this estimated account in your lottery application

put in a budget for access consultation, to include core members and members who will help run the group

you may wish to put in a budget for architects' consultation in your lottery application.

3 Get a preliminary access audit of your project done and include it in the lottery application.

4 Contact people with disabilities and find some key players through:

the access auditor

the local authority

disabled people who know/are associated with your organisation.

5 When you have got funding for the consultation:

ask the 'key players' for advice

decide a structure, together

invite other members.

6 Get senior management to make it part of the contract with the architects and design consultants that:

they prioritise access

they consult the group throughout the design process

they implement your suggestions.

7 Work out your areas of responsibility:

who is running the group day-to-day?

who is the link between the group and the project architects?

who is responsible for access auditing on a running basis (checking your suggestions are incorporated in the designs)?

who is responsible for 'signing off' the work on your behalf?

8 Involve the staff of your organisation, particularly the member responsible for customer care.

9 Get going - hold meetings early on and keep abreast of the design process.

Use these structures if they work for you. Adapt them to your project and learn from earlier mistakes.

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