For over 20 years, the UK has had laws to make public buildings and spaces more accessible for people with disabilities.
Thanks to anti-discrimination legislation, design features such as ramps, lifts, bobbled surfaces at crossings, voiced announcements in lifts and on transport, automatic doors and a host of other provisions that help people with disabilities participate in everyday activities are now widespread. But this was not always the case.
It wasn’t until 1963 when a young architect called Selwyn Goldsmith (who himself had a disability after contracting polio) identified the many ways that standard architecture threw up insurmountable barriers to disabled people – something which he called ‘institutional discrimination’.
By studying the specific needs of wheelchair users, people with visual and hearing impairments, and anyone who had difficulty using buildings, he published the first guidance on how to make buildings more accessible.
It championed the idea of ‘universal design’ in which buildings and the environment should be universal and inclusive spaces, equally accessible to people with and without disabilities.
One of Goldsmith’s greatest insights was the need for dropped kerbs, 15 of which he had installed at crossings in Norwich, the pilot city where he conducted his research. His design caught on all over the world and is now a familiar sight in towns and cities across the globe.
Years of concerted campaigning and awareness-raising led to the passing of the Disability Discrimination Act in 1995, and then the Equality Act in 2010, which enshrined equal access to public buildings, shops, services and workspaces in the law.
Despite this, campaigners say that disabled people are still facing significant and unnecessary barriers to living full and equal lives because of continuing poor design and planning in our built environment, and lack of compliance with the law.
Yet, the need for full accessibility has never been greater. More than 11.5 million people in the UK have a condition or disability that limits their day-to-day activities. That’s almost one in five people in the country. As the population gets older, this number will only rise.
And 1.4 million people with a disability would like to work but can’t find a suitable job – often because of accessibility issues.
Legislators are looking to strengthen the law to make accessibility an automatic and integral part of the design and building process.
Good design removes barriers and acknowledges diversity and difference. We all stand to benefit from a built environment that has been created with accessibility and inclusivity at its heart.
The construction industry needs more people with disabilities in its workforce. Not only do employers gain from having diverse, highly skilled and loyal employees, they also get insights from people who have a first-hand understanding of accessibility issues.
People with disabilities cannot be discriminated against in the construction industry. Employers must make reasonable adjustments so that a worker with a disability can perform and keep their job in the same way as anyone else.