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Universal design can never comply with DDA

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Austin Williams suggested that there were differences between John Penton and me which he felt could and should be resolved ('Universal disagreement' AJ 10.05.01).

Both of us, he said, wanted architects to design as broadly as possible and we wanted them to design buildings which would be convenient for all their users.

Whatever the building being designed, the universal design principle is that the accommodation parameters of normal provision are extended as far as reasonably possible, thereby minimising the need for special provisions for disabled people or other user groups. But there are, we acknowledge, frequently occasions where supplementary special provision has to be made, particularly for disabled people, which is an integral component of universal design.

With its 'as-far-as-reasonably-can-be' axiom, universal design's methodology runs from the bottom up. Building Regulations Part M 'Access for the Disabled', structured on prescribed minimum design standards, has a top-down methodology. The standards - many of them affected by the capabilities of an independent wheelchair-user - necessarily come with cut-off points, ones which may exclude suitable provision for severely disabled people, or those, for example, who travel around in electric scooters.

The Disability Discrimination Act is aimed at outlawing discrimination against disabled people per se. The requirement is that, as far as is reasonable, a building where services are provided to members of the public should be made as accessible as possible. The DDA, like universal design, thus has a bottom-up methodology.

There are no guidelines for the architect to alter an existing building to satisfy the requirements of the DDA, and s/he may look for advice from an access consultant. But as there is no compliance certification, no access consultant, however reputable, can guarantee that the alteration works which he or she advises will put the building on the right side of the law.

Come October 2004, when the access requirements of the DDA become operative, a determinedly vexatious disabled person will be capable of finding fault with virtually any public building s/he comes across, and charge its provider with unlawful discrimination against disabled people.

John Penton is evidently a proponent of the concept of universal design although he imagines - erroneously in my view - that it will evolve from the implementation of the DDA. He evokes the concept of 'inclusive design', calling it 'the fullest possible inclusion of all people within the functioning of society'.

Looking to the future, the promotion of the concept of universal design will, I trust, be continuous.

Should a second edition of my book be called for, it will be for others to expand and update it, guided, as I hope they will be, by informed commentators such as John Penton.

Owing to its bottom-up methodological character, universal design cannot ever, I suspect, be statutorily regulated.

Part M and BS8300 will surely remain in place, and so will the DDA. But let us see to it that we allow them never to obscure the vision of universal design.

Selwyn Goldsmith, author of Universal Design

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