Disability and Retailers: Are You Designing for Everyone? 1

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Thursday, April 7th, 2016
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Every day in shopping centres across Australia, disabled people face frustrations over access in retail outlets despite provisions in the National Construction Code and BCA that are supposed to prevent access issues.

As architects, we have detailed knowledge of the standards and regulations relating to disabled access – factors like door clearances, heights of obstacles, fixtures in the path of travel, ramp gradients and so on. Yet many find in their day-to-day experiences of life that the standards do not go far enough to provide access for everyone, whether they’re in a wheelchair or even more commonly, using a pram or stroller with young children.

There are some extremely common access problems for disabled customers that we see again and again. These include:

Store access

Stores have designed their space to meet the relevant codes, but then access to the store itself is not compliant. This can be a particular problem in the streetfront environment.

Inadequate corridor width

In many stores, minimum corridor width requirements do not appear to be upheld. Frequently, this is due to movable racks or displays being placed in the middle of aisles, causing problems for wheelchair users, plus those with trolleys and prams, especially if it is necessary to turn around. Similarly, in many clothing stores, racks only cater for the able bodied, with it being common for there to be inadequate space between racks to move about the store and access items of interest.

Small spaces

A common problem faced by retailers in smaller spaces is the impact on their business if they do make the space compliant. For example, a small hairdressing salon could lose a valuable work space if they add a compliant counter. Where does the responsibility lie? Is it with the retailer to make the space compliant, or with the lessor to ensure that all spaces leased are workable and affordable if compliance is required?

Floor surfaces

Common issues in this area are transition strips between types of floor finishes – for example between walkways and general retail floor space with display units, or between the exterior and interior of the store, as well as issues with uneven paving and other obstacles.

Counter heights

For some people in wheelchairs, accessing retail counters can be problematic, with the counter either at an awkward height, or the area being crowded by other displays. Counter height is a common problem at food retailers in particular, with servers often behind display cases making it difficult for customers in wheelchairs to be heard and effectively communicate.

So what can design professionals do?

Fairly obviously, when working on a retail or commercial design fit out, it is important to read and review the Australian Human Rights Commission access guidelines and ensure that any design choices are compliant. However, problems tend to arise not from the fixed design elements, but through how retailers and their staff use the space.

To help retailers understand accessibility issues, as part of the design consultation, consider providing your client with an accessibility manual and staff training assistance. This should cover matters like the importance of slip resistant floor coverings, policies for keeping pathways clear of obstacles, and suggestions for maximising display space without impinging on access requirements.

Ultimately, designing for good access benefits everyone and the costs of doing so are outweighed by creating a more pleasant and usable retail environment for all customers.

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  1. Tom Roberts

    Great article, Ruth – raises some very interesting points.

    Furthermore, it is not only disabled customers we have to consider but also disabled employees as well.

    The small spaces you refer to are certainly more common in smaller stores, and these stores would almost certainly be extremely difficult for disabled customers or employees to navigate. This produces a dilemma given that the tenants are often very small business operators with an obvious need to minimise their floorspace requirement. Indeed, the business model for some of these operators (especially discount stores and chains) is predicated around competition on the basis of cost. One obviously understands that providing isles of sufficient width so as to enable wheelchair access is difficult in such circumstances. Yet to provide a space which does not meet access requirements is to deny disabled customers their right for free and full access to retail opportunities.