Disability and the built environment is more than just lifts and ramps.

What do you think:

  • Wheelchair users have led the way but who else needs accessible homes and buildings?
  • What already makes it difficult to get around?
  • Will your home still work for you when you are older?


Its good to contribute to this Parliamentary enquiry in to disability and the built environment but, while I have worked with thousands of disabled people over the years, I’ll stick to my own experience as a blind person and hope that many others also send in their ideas (closing date is 12 October).

I have thought about what stops me using many public spaces.  Lifts and ramps are obviously helpful for people who can’t see like me as they avoid the hazards of negotiating steps.  But sound is probably more important and largely ignored.  Very many modern buildings are full of hard surfaces that reflect noise, people talking, moving and being naturally active and, on top of it all, music that is too loud and intrusive.  These environments can be torture of the bucket-over-the-head-being-beaten-by-a-hammer ilk.  Sound that has degenerated in to noise removes a blind person’s ability to listen to the environment and understand it, to hear one’s guide and be safe in moving around.  I remember years ago trying to explain this to the developers of the Blue Water complex.  So one simply avoids going to noisy shopping centres and similar environments.  Some are not possible to avoid such as train stations with the tannoy systems, engine sounds, guard whistles and passenger hustle and bustle.  Trying to negotiate platforms full of people and luggage without being able to hear what the assistant is saying can be truly a leap in the dark.

I wonder whether people with mental health conditions find noise equally difficult?  And those with hearing impairments will have their own tales to tell.

Space is another major issue.  It is not just the narrow aisles in the supermarkets but corridors in hotels and small spaces in other buildings.  Many, but certainly not all, can accommodate a wheel chair user but designers have rarely considered the blind person who is being guided: there needs to be sufficient space for two people alongside each other.  I cannot count the number of times I have had my knuckles bloodied by being run in to a wall or other obstacle because there wasn’t enough space.

High contrast décor was really helpful when I had a bit more sight.  It doesn’t need to be intrusive but perhaps contrasting skirting boards and door surrounds.  I remember being stuck by the wash-hand basins in some toilets – all white probably looks bright and sterile but I had to beat on every vertical surface until I found the one that was the exit door!

Lastly a practical note on public spaces borne from delivering workshops at many different venues, that old chestnut: hearing loops are just useless if no-one knows that they are there, they are not maintained and no-one knows how to switch them on!

Thinking about the domestic built environment, I have been hugely lucky to have both a great architect and builder who have taken on board my needs: doors without thresholds, safe steps, tactile paving, accessible controls and electrics, non-slip flooring and much more.  I love designing my building projects right down to the detail of flush cupboard door handles that don’t catch me.  I am lucky enough to have the experts that can make it all happen but they are quite a rarity –do Trusted trader systems include a “disability and accessibility” comment box?  But I didn’t even contemplate that manufacturers are producing mirror-finished walk-in shower bases   that, with water and soap suds, are as hazardous as an ice rink.  After more than a year, the injury from the fall is still not recovered.  When many of us are replacing baths with more accessible, economic and environmentally-friendly showers, there should be an absolute prohibition on fixtures and fittings that actually create risk.  And don’t even suggest those non-slip mats that so quickly become mouldy and hazardous in their own right that the shop assistant strongly recommended against buying one!  I resorted to non-slip textured paint that has done the job but why should I need to?

Regarding Government and policy considerations, the narrow thinking about accessibility in public buildings and housing developments flows from decades of Departments and Councils largely giving the breadth of equality legislation scant regard – so it is little wonder that most associated with the construction industry   simply do the same.  I used to be a member of a local Access Group but we needed help to build the relevant planning expertise, funding for at least our travel costs, proper consultation processes and accreditation by the Local Authority to be credible across both the community and industry. Stronger leadership, effective legal compliance and more attention to the details that affect a very broad constituency of citizens would make a difference – and we all know that it needn’t cost much if tackled at the design stage.

“Accessibility” measures and building regulations have opened up the built environment for many but still haven’t removed the physical risks for lots of us.

Penny Melville-Brown OBE

Disability Dynamics ltd www.disabilitydynamics.co.uk

Helping disabled people to work since 2000

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