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Universal disagreement

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Recent articles by John Penton and Selwyn Goldsmith have raised questions about the nature of disability legislation and the necessity of catering for independent wheelchair users

Inclusive design for the majority John Penton responds to Goldsmith's article Many architects must have been confused by Selwyn Goldsmith's recent article, 'Access all areas' (AJ 15.03.01). He speaks of designing for 'the disabled' as if people with disabilities can be identified as a generic group. To reinforce his point Goldsmith refers to what he describes as a 'disability oligarchy', specifically in the guise of 'independent wheelchair users'.

He then goes on to claim that 'minority rule defies universal design', and says he explains 'why special for-the-disabled design is socially exclusive and offensively discriminatory'. His claim is both contradictory and unrelated to the realities, not just of designing buildings, but of managing them.

The significance of the Disability Discrimination Act (DDA) is not the promotion of 'Universal Design', or 'special for-the-disabled' design. The Act is significant because it is about promoting the concept of 'inclusion'; that is to say, the fullest possible inclusion of all people within the functioning of society. This demands pragmatism, the application of common sense, long timescales and a new set of objectives in relation to the ways in which we frame and manage our built environment. After all, it is possible to argue that we have always built for a minority; fit males between the ages of 18 and 45, who are neither exceptionally tall, fat or left-handed. The rest of us have to adapt to our environment as best we can.

The definition of people suffering impairment or handicap includes such a large a proportion of the population that it almost certainly constitutes a majority. If that is accepted then it follows that a major shift in our culture is required. It is this that Goldsmith resists.

The undertaking of a massive task of reeducation and attitudinal change is now needed. Part M of the Building Regulations has served its useful, but only interim, purpose. Its role is now superseded by the demand for a more sophisticated and universally appropriate attitude to the built environment, and how it is managed.

The introduction to the DDA has seen the generation of a widespread need for the accessibility auditing of existing buildings and the accessibility auditing of designs. These procedures, which should be seen as triggering a process of regular review, can only be beneficial, not least of all in establishing how accessible our built environment really is.

John Penton is an architect and consultant member of the National Register of Access Consultants. He is author of Accessing the Act (AJ 7.12.00) and The Disability Discrimination Act: Inclusion Squeezing out the seriously disabled Austin Williams reviews Goldsmith's new book, Universal Design For many, many years, Selwyn Goldsmith's book Designing for the Disabled has been the generic term of reference for architectural library research into disability requirements.However, his 1997 publication Designing for the Disabled - A New Paradigm and his most recent, Universal Design, have brought some gasps from those who think that he is now turning his back on what he had promoted.

Goldsmith points out that he was 'troubled by the ethos that [his earlier books] reflected the presumption that disabled people ought to be set apart, packaged together and treated as different from normal people'. He has sought to redefine the concept of disability to represent 'architecturally disabled', that is, those people who find buildings difficult to negotiate, but who are not traditionally classified as disabled; women who lack toilet provision, for example.

The argument between Penton and Goldsmith seems to reflect two sides of the same coin. Even though Goldsmith argues that 'normal provision should be extended as far as can be, thereby minimizing the need for special provision for people with disabilities', he wishes to extend the 'normal' design parameters so that disabled people's requirements would be caught up in these extended design boundaries.

Penton, on the other hand, wishes to extend the definition of disability, in line with the trajectory of the DDA, to suggest that - rather than disabled people being a minority considered as an added extra for design - we should see that disability is a majority problem and not as an add-on consideration. Penton's perspective is that design compromises should be made to 'include' the majority of disabled people in design. Goldsmith's compromise represents instances when disability cannot be accommodated in 'normal' design.

Goldsmith argues that 'normal' design should be broadened, where possible, to accommodate disabled users; his main point of departure is that where no blind people use certain buildings, for example, providing braille signage is worthless.

While I tend to come down on the side of Goldsmith's call for a common sense approach to design, it seems that both authors prioritize disabled considerations as a driver for design; one compromises up, the other compromises down, but both want to design as broadly as possible. Ultimately, I worry that - as this debate accepts and promotes the broadening definitions of disability (to include 'handicaps' encountered by 'emotionally distressed' people, 'temporarily injured' people, 'large' people or 'children') - it might water down a commitment to aid people with acknowledged medical conditions.

Universal Design, Selwyn Goldsmith, Architectural Press, 2000

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