It seems many people still think that accessibility is only about ramps and toilets. Although these are important items to get right and make suitable for everybody, in terms of universal design they are only a small part of the whole. In the last few weeks I was asked to inspect two public buildings (a hotel and a shopping centre) and I was asked only to look at the accessible toilets. 

In the case of the hotel it was absolutely laughable! Their front door was not even accessible to wheelchair users who would have to enter via the kitchen! Their mezzanine parking area has no parking bays for persons with disabilities, and the lobby lift is only 1.2m wide. The architect literated that it was an old building! This building is only 10 years old. When is a building old? The Moses Mabhida Stadium now exists: is it old? Does this mean that “old” buildings can stick with the health, safety and (in)convenience that was permitted when they were built? It disappoints me that architects do not look at context. They go ahead with the brief, exactly as given to them, and don’t feel responsible for anything adjacent to it.

On the hotel’s first floor there is a beautiful spa with a wonderful view over the ocean. The architects have opened it up, enlarged it by enclosing a balcony and decked it with timber suggesting a nautical theme. There are toilets attached to this recreation area, but no accessible toilet. What a shame! The ladies’ loo could have been adapted to double up as an accessible facility. How much extra would that have cost? It would have been ideal for wheelchair users.

The shopping centre is in Kwa-Mashu; a really innovative idea developed by the Municipality: to incorporate a train station on the lower floor, shopping on the next two floors, a taxi rank on the roof and two high-rise blocks of living space as a third phase for the roof. The shopping fl oors contain all the line shops that one would see anywhere else. The toilet facilities are clad in porcelain tiles, and it is a pleasant environment all round. It opened about a year ago.

A comprehensive survey of the building for compliance with the Regulations was done in November 2009. The project managers have decided to correct the defects piecemeal. The revised toilets still do not comply with standards yet the impression is that everything will be in order when this is done. There are no refuge areas on the first floor for Persons with Disabilities and the lifts do not have facilities for vision and hearing impaired people. I doubt whether these will ever be attended to.

This very week I went with an architect to see a new school which will be opening next year in a depressed area near my home. It is a double storey, four winged, junior and senior school. It is completely accessible: the staircases on the axis line of the development are wrapped with ramps, which fit seamlessly with them, and I’m sure will be popular with all the users of the building. The landings are used as pause areas so that universal design principles come into play. It is a delight to see this being achieved within budget and with the complete co-operation of the Department of Public Works.

Attending meetings of the SABS sub-committee for the SANS10400-S document, (this is the deemed-to-satisfy section of the National Building Regulations) on behalf of South African Institute for Architects, has been a real strain. It did not go smoothly; due mostly to the processes being so tedious and time consuming.

The disability sector held their ground, and have already made a positive impact, after having been excluded from participation for more than two years. Seven of the other Parts have already been published, and there is pressure to get this Part published as soon as possible, but will that be at the expense of getting it right? We must continue to push for Universal Access and Universal Design principles which, I believe, have not been whole-heartedly addressed elsewhere. The South African Disability Alliance support Universal Access and Universal Design in line with the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. Let’s hope we can do this.