If design works well for people with disabilities, it works better for everyone.

This is the essence of the observations of this series. It is all about making buildings and their environments safe and convenient for all potential users, including people with disabilities; independently if they so wish.

It is about conceiving these environments, conforming to universal design principles, as integral to them and not as segregated or special needs elements.

These principles are not new. Many of our modern conveniences are developments arising out of assistive devices evolved over the years.

Over the past few years, people involved in the building industry have perforce adapted the built environment to allow for major innovations such as air conditioning and computer installations, as it was seen to be for the greater good. These have not meant that principles have had to be sacrificed or values compromised. Usability and aesthetics can be mutually compatible.

Disability is dependent on the environments in which people with impairments are placed.

With our Labour Laws in South Africa, disabled people can look forward to participating in the workforce. However, it is still a fact that most employers appear to think it is just trouble waiting to happen when it is suggested that a disabled person become part of their staff. Yet, if you think about it, every employee needs to be accommodated in one way or another, so what's different about the accommodations needed for a disabled person? One staff member might need time off to collect a toddler from school, another to attend to a sick mother, or to go outside to have a smoke!

When the vertical circulation system for the Sears tower in Chicago was being designed, it was worked out that in order to accommodate the wheelchair users, additional time for the stops at each floor was needed: so in the big picture it meant that additional lifts would have to be used to cope with the flow of people. This might have resulted in the project not being viable because of the additional space required. With a bit of lateral thinking, however, it was decided instead to programme the lifts to signal at least three floors before reaching the floor where it was due to arrive. In the end this led to the fact that all the passengers were able to reach the door in better time and this in turn led to an actual saving in lift number requirements!

A special needs environment or product often turns out to suit the majority of people. Remember cars used to be started by cranking: a device that only particularly fit young men could operate. It soon developed into the twist of a key inside the car: this suited a much broader range of people. Email and suitcases on wheels were also first used as assistive devices!!

The prevalence of the various categories of disabled people is cause for argument: there is no straight line as to who is and who isn't a disabled person. All of us are disabled to a greater or lesser degree depending on the environment in which we find ourselves.

Look at the ramp, the steps, the benches...Trace, Wisconsin USA

Everybody will from time to time be a disabled person if only on a temporary basis, but this state of disability can be reduced if the built environment gives recognition to this fact. Even so, the numbers of disabled people in our societies are increasing at a faster rate than the rate of increase of the general population. It is certainly much less than half the population, but in our democratic society it is not acceptable to exclude people on this basis, and indeed does not make for good business.

Outside environments

Let's look at outside environments to start with, and work our way inwards during the year:

Pavements, which have a camber of more than 1:40 are difficult for wheeling trolleys, pushchairs or wheelchairs. This applies to pathways in game parks and around gardens too. Steps are an obstruction to visually impaired people, hearing impaired people (who like to look at each other while they're talking and walking) and wheelchair users as well as those using walkers. Sometimes these can be combined as is the case in Wisconsin, USA.

The main axis line of this picture is a view with St Paul's Cathedral, behind the photographer, towards the Thames River in London. It shows the combined steps and ramp and the seats at regular intervals on the landings. This is another very important feature, which is often neglected in the outside environment: it has been researched that hardly anybody likes to walk further than 150m without a rest. Here it is used in the best tradition of Universal Design as a viewing spot too towards the Millennium pedestrian bridge over the river and the converted power station which is now the Tate Modern gallery.

This allows for the pedestrians who do not wish to stop to pass by without being obstructed and there is also a space adjacent to each bench for a wheelchair user to use. The aesthetics are pleasing: perhaps the nosing of the steps could have been of a contrasting colour and some handrails would have been useful. Maybe it was in the interest of aesthetics that these were not done! They nearly got it 100% right!

The swimming pool illustrations demonstrate how a pool can be designed to work without a hoist device for disabled people. The deep part of the pool is an oval shape and the scupper edge has been shaped to become a ramp on the near side with slip resistant bottom, perfect also for kiddies, and it still remains suitable to dive into from the far side.

Hoists are fine, except I have not yet seen one, which can be operated independently. Hoists also tend to give the general impression that they are add-ons, and not an intrinsic part of the pool design. In this beautiful pool example, too, the use of handrails has also been neglected. These would have to be carefully planned as part of the pool and not as add-ons. Unfortunately grab rails do often give the impression of being a special needs attachment. On a yacht they are very nautical, and no one imagines they are there for a disabled person; In that context, they are enabling tools.

Hoists, even when used away from a pool environment, tend, unfortunately, to be designed to be used with a helper.

What I really like about this pool is the principles, which have been used -- conceptually, just by shaping the collar, as it were, a host of benefits have been achieved.

This encapsulates what the universal design approach is about: Free at last!

Swimming pools can work without a hoist device. Here just by carefully shaping the “collar” a host of benefits have been achieved -- Makaranga Lodge, Kloof.

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