The lack of access into commercial and public buildings is still a key issue affecting disabled people in the UK. Christian King of Kee Systems looks at the current regulations and explores how premises should be built or upgraded to improve disabled access
According to the ‘Facts and Figures 2018’ report published by The Papworth Trust on Disability, there are 13.3 million disabled people living in the UK, making up around 20 per cent of the overall population. The report also states that the most commonly reported accessibility difficulties for disabled people in accessing goods and public services are shopping (20 per cent), cinema, theatre and concerts (15 per cent) and pubs and restaurants (14 per cent). This was illustrated further in March, when a dispute between a restaurant owner in Cambridge and a disabled woman was settled outside of court after a step prevented her from entering the restaurant.
The case was taken to court and the restaurant owner agreed to cover the woman’s expenses and provide a donation to a charity to acknowledge the distress that she experienced. The owner also – and more importantly – improved the wheelchair access to the building. This is just one of many examples of disabled people not being able to access public buildings. Laws tackling the discrimination and inequality against disabled people in the UK have existed for a number of years. These regulations state that “reasonable steps” need to be taken to ensure disabled people are not at a disadvantage when accessing commercial and public buildings. However, it seems that buildings are still not being built or upgraded to meet the required standards. What is reasonable will depend on all circumstances, including the cost of an adjustment, the potential benefit it might bring to visitors, the resources a client has, and how practical the changes are. The Equality Act 2010 requires that property owners must think ahead and take steps to address barriers that impede disabled people.
Previously – under the Disability Discrimination Act (DDA) – adjustments to premises had to be made only where it would otherwise be ‘impossible or unreasonably difficult’ for a disabled person to access the property. Under the Equality Act, adjustments must be made where disabled people experience a “substantial disadvantage.” A common solution can involve taking out physical structures like steps and replacing them with ramps, or simply providing handrails to aid wheelchair or other disabled users. In these cases, the precise obligations set out in ‘Building Regulation Approved Document M’ specify that handrail heights on all building stairways and ramps do not discriminate against any disability group. On access ramp gradients, which vary from two through to five degrees, handrails need to be positioned on both sides, or centrally for a wide path, to allow a choice of which arm to use for support. They should be installed on both sides of the ramps that are longer than two metres and should, where possible, extend 300 mm beyond the top and bottom of the ramp or staircase. The Building Regulations stipulate an outside diameter tube size for such installations of between 40 and 45 mm, and must be offset in the case of a mid-height handrail.
Architects and specifiers must satisfy these regulatory requirements, yet also be able to meet customer demands on aesthetics as well as on cost-effective options. This is really important on retrofit projects, where the time and cost involved in removing handrails and replacing with a new structure can seem incredibly expensive. One option is to adapt existing handrails to meet the requirements of Part M and the Equality Act. There are many solutions on the market which are ideal for heavy traffic environments, and which allow both speedy and seamless retrofitting as well as hassle-free and simple installation in a new build.
This is hugely important to those businesses where there is no option of down time. There are fittings available which provide versatility to help adapt to a particular installation’s requirements. These ensure that handrails can be assembled at any required angle, or to offer a midpoint connection to dual handrails, when required. One-piece 90˚ corner elbow and an adjustable elbow fitting, meanwhile, ensure that any new handrailing structure created can cope easily with different angles and changes in direction. Product ranges which include ‘Add-on’ offset fittings remain popular; they lend themselves well to retrofit projects, where the new handrail can simply be added onto an existing structure of the appropriate size. Given the requirements of the Equality Act and Building Regulations, architects should aim to have handrail systems installed which children, the elderly, the disabled and even able-bodied adults can benefit from.
Christian King is general manager at Kee Systems