Reasons for and examination of access barriers faced by disabled people

11 September 1980 – Selwyn Goldsmith’s workshop for architects on “Designing for the Disabled”

Are disabled people purposely excluded?

Prof. Wolfensberger, in presenting the 31 July 1980 Minda Lecture, described the conflict of Western culture and gave one explanation of why we have failed to design for the needs of the whole community. Western “comfort culture” values youth, affluence, beauty and success and therefore needs to discard the old, sick, helpless, poor and ugly. The latter groups are seen by the former affluent minority as reminders of harder times and bearers of bad news.

Is it conceivable that at the back of our minds we feel that by building steps and other barriers we will keep the hub of our society exclusively for those the comfort society values? Or is it that the devalued members have been kept out of sight for so long that we are now ignorant of their problems?

Wolfensberger suggests that our society is falling prey to a death-making domino theory, away from the conventional life-valuing social contract. He cited as evidence many legislative changes in Western countries, where protection, not only for the dying but for physically and mentally disabled persons, is being withdrawn. The justification of much of this legislation has been one of cost; a cost too high for the comfort culture to expend on people who have a dubious quality of life.

Certainly, the way we disregard the value of animal and plant members of our Earth highlights the dangerous extent to which we are prepared to go in our efforts to maintain the artificial comfort culture. If Wolfensberger is correct, then we are on a planned, accelerating death-making and condoning pathway.

Access standards need updating

I would prefer to think, that the many physical barriers erected in our society are the result of ignorance rather than intention. We know that it costs no more at the point of building to provide access and we even have guidelines which assist with its implementation. Unfortunately, the Australian Standards AS1428 Access and Mobility guidelines are not always correct and in some cases are much too elaborate. These need urgent updating through consultation with people of many disability types.

If we are to prove Wolfensberger wrong, then the days of pleading ignorance by architects, builders, engineers and councils are over. One of the great things about architecture is its visibility and permanence; the intent and values of the architect are there for all to see. During IYDP, one of the focuses is going to be on access. Your profession is going to be in the critical spotlight with consumer groups already collecting the names of architects and firms whose work denies them access.

Universal access as the way forward

On the other hand there are the notable examples of what can be done to provide access for all. On the international scene, Dr. Goldsmith has pioneered not only the philosophy but also the design possibilities for the provision of access. Locally, people like Colin Pudney and Gordon Reid of the Australian Council for the Rehabilitation of the Disabled (ACROD) Access Committee have worked hard to persuade their colleagues and councils towards designing for the community as a whole.

Doors and foyers as barriers

Most of the practical difficulties I’m going to talk about are found in buildings that are considered to be access free. The overlooking of these difficulties demonstrates the need to consult with people with disabilities, for professional fees of course. In the past too much of the standard set has been to suit the requirements of a small minority – the paraplegic Olympians. Not only are heavy entrance doors almost impossible for disabled and elderly people, but these doors are also a menace to mothers with young children and to office staff carrying bundles of records and files.

The current fashion is for entrance foyers to be large and empty spaces with the receptionist positioned on the far horizon. The grandiose barren vista is of similar architectural philosophy to that of steps. Both these devices are to signal to the users that they are leaving the everyday world and stepping up to something better and more important. Similarly, while traversing the desert of carpet, the user can contemplate the wealth of the owner who can afford to be so extravagant with empty space.

Unfortunately for disabled people, the carpet has usually been selected to reinforce affluence, and like desert sands, is usually equally soft and hard to push against. Blind people too often become totally lost and confused while trying to find a receptionist in these large spaces. The only way to rest for the elderly and arthritic during their trek is to collapse on the floor, for rarely is seating provided, even at the receptionist’s desk.

The height of this desk will invariably be designed for Mr. Average, with no thought for children, people in wheelchairs and little people. A simple split-level desk solves all these problems while still catering for the receptionist’s security and comfort. The provision of a telephone on an extended cord at this point, solves communication problems simply and inexpensively.

Lift doors and buttons as barriers

I am still suffering a bruised elbow following a recent altercation with a particularly vicious lift door. Fortunately, the brunt of the blow was absorbed by bending the wheels of my chair but unsatisfied, the doors failed to retract immediately and for some time, we remained two gladiators locked in mortal combat.

This same lift also did not have engraved buttons nor floor sound indicators, a problem for blind people, who push the bottom button for ground floor and emerge to fall over packing cases, mops and buckets when they arrive in the basement.

Toilets and signage as barriers

In spite of all the provision of paraplegic toilets, when my wife and I travel we are continuously trying to find cleaner’s rooms in order to pass the time of day. For those of us who have to be pushed by wives or husbands, the dilemma between going into a male or female toilet is excruciating. On the one hand I hate screaming women, but on the other I’m not willing to stand up to any comparison which my wife may observe by going into the male toilet. So much for my “toilet humour.” It is a thinly disguised plea for simple unisex accessible toilets.

Before leaving the toilet area entirely, rather than trendy ‘his’ and ‘hers’ signs or as one seafront hotel has it, “Seagulls and Seagals”, international figure symbols are of great help to mentally disabled persons, people with learning problems and foreign language speakers.

Motel fittings as barriers

Motel/hotel accommodation, an area largely patronised by pensioner age groups, could broaden their clientele even further by making a number of simple changes. Firstly, they could widen toilet doors to allow wheelchair access and then remove some of the unnecessary furniture which apparently symbolises the comfort culture. With no cupboard under the bathroom sink, one could manoeuvre a wheelchair to at least wash one’s hands or hair, even if the bath or shower is inaccessible. Just who is going to fill all those cupboards on an overnight stay in any case?

The provision of at least one low wardrobe hook would also help little people, arthritics and wheelies to hang clothes. Arthritic knees and hips find low divan beds difficult and so do people who need to transfer from wheelchairs. Beds on legs are easily adjusted with blocks which many disabled people carry. For print disabled people, combined function taps can also pose difficulties.

Cinema and lecture hall barriers

Cinemas and places of entertainment are notorious for ignoring the rights of a potentially large group of customers. Steps and stairs are common, even after renovations. There is not one cinema in Adelaide which provides a loop system for hearing-impaired people and some still insist on the dangerous seat transfer for those in wheelchairs. Lecture halls too can greatly improve the ability of deaf people by providing lighting to illuminate a speaker’s lips and a hearing loop system.

Cobblestones as barriers

Problems too still exist outdoors. Cobblestones, for instance, may be romantic to active youngsters but for people with gait problems, amputees, strokes etc. they are quite lethal. To cross a cobblestone courtyard in a wheelchair is a tooth-chattering experience.

The provision of continuous access has to be a total concept from the time of leaving to returning home. Properly designed street furniture, phone booths, post boxes, bus shelters are part of this total concept. The design of the transport system dictates whether it will be used by all of the community or, as is our South Australian system, only for the fit commuter.

Distance from parking places and seating as barriers

Distance is a problem for elderly people in general as well as people who have amputations, arthritis, stroke, mothers with babies and wheelchair users. Parking provision therefore needs to be provided close to shops, cinemas and places of work.

For those in wheelchairs, the parking place set aside must be wide enough for a wheelchair to get beside the vehicle so that the disabled person can be transferred. We need improved standards for this.

Lack of ramps as barriers

Ramps are often neglected from car parks forcing one to be lifted over the rather high wheel stops – motels usually have this problem.

Once into the street, the ramps again are infrequent, have too high a lip or steep a slope. High road divisions often force one to travel some distance on dangerous carriageways because of the lack of ramps.

Opportunity to improve access for all

These are but a few of the barriers faced by the disabled person attempting to join the community. Many more could be added. With 1981, the United Nations International Year of Disabled Persons with a theme of equality and full participation, let’s demonstrate to Wolfensberger that we are not a society of death-making, but one which cares for and involves all of its members in a life of equal opportunity.