Provisions for people with disabilities and the relevant legislative instruments documenting these have traditionally attended mainly to ‘base build’ items in Australia.
The Building Code of Australia (BCA) references Australian Standard AS 1428.1:2009 (Design for access and mobility, Part 1: General requirements for access – New building work) with regard to access for people with disabilities.
This standard addresses building elements such as path widths and finishes, circulation spaces, signage, door and door hardware parameters, sanitary facilities, stairs and ramps and wheelchair spaces in auditoriums. Little regard is given to furniture and furniture related fitments and joinery.
While Australian Standard AS1428.2:1992 (Part 2: Enhanced and additional requirements – Building and facilities) is an ageing standard, it addresses many of these elements but is not a referenced Australian Standard within the Building Code of Australia (BCA).
Predictably, this therefore sees these items largely disregarded by the design community, which is guided by long standing ‘industry norms.’ These norms unfortunately often lack supporting empirical data, while many originate from anthropometric data gained decades ago from samples taken from the US military.
The limitations of continuing down this track are obvious to many. Australia is a diverse society whose population sees representation from all corners of the globe. Of course Australia’s population is also an ageing one, with age and disability also strongly correlated. Our approach needs to change if we want to be able to create buildings which are inclusive and address the needs of as many people as possible.
In 2010 the Disability (Access to Premises – Buildings) Standards were released with one of the aims being to harmonise the Disability Discrimination Act (1992) where it relates to the built environment and building legislature such as the BCA and state based Building Acts and Regulations. In doing so, of course, little regard was again given to furniture and fitments with only brief mention made in the explanatory statement accompanying the standard.
It is generally understood, however, that these items continue to be areas which could see complaints under the DDA (1992). Complaints are initially lodged and mediated by the Australian Human Rights Commission; but the fact that it is a federal act leaves open the possibility of such grievances making it to Federal Court.
The potential benefits of approaching this area of design more holistically are therefore twofold. First, it creates environments which accommodate the needs of a diverse group of people and allow them to be more independent, safe and dignified in their use of the building. It also provides certainty to architects, designers, builders, as well as building owners and managers that they have acted prudently, met the spirit and intent of the DDA (1992), and consequently reduced any associated risk of complaint.
Of course furniture and fitment encompasses a vast array of elements, some examples and relevant considerations are summarised below:
Seating needs vary significantly so it’s important to also provide a variety of seating options.
Having some seating with a higher seat height (e.g. 510 millimetres) can assist older people and people with mobility difficulties to transfer onto and off the seat with less effort and less risk of sustaining a fall. A higher seat height can, however, make transfers for more mobile wheelchair users more difficult (e.g. a person with a low level spinal injury). Providing some seating at approximately 450 millimetres will be more be beneficial to this cohort.
Armrests, of course, are important in assisting people with mobility difficulties in coming into standing, but placing armrests at either end of seats can prevent some wheelchair users from sliding across onto to a seat. Providing an armrest at one end and an additional one at the midpoint of the seat may therefore allow both types of users to access the same bench seat.
Backrests provide support to people with reduced trunk control, and areas providing seating should provide some options with a backrest and armrests.
Also important but often overlooked is also the provision of adequate heel clearance below the seat. Allowing people with some level of mobility difficulty to bring their feet underneath them assists greatly when coming into standing.
Where possible, varied seating options should be clustered together to provide these options in equivalent locations.
Spacing at the end of seating or between seating options (e.g. approximately 900 millimetres) is also important to allow wheelchair users who remain seated in their wheelchairs to be located in close proximity to any others they are accompanied by.
Again varied table options are also important at any one location. Higher table options allow for wheelchair users to approach a table close enough to use effectively by accommodating the top of the person’s legs and in some instances their wheelchair’s armrests or joystick controller. Adequate spacing between the supports of the table will be less of a hindrance for wheelchair users to approach and gain suitable reach to the table top.
Higher tables are difficult for people who are shorter in stature and for children to access, and again where possible options of varying heights placed together will be beneficial.
Providing adequate spacing between tables is also important to allow people who use wheelchairs or mobility aids to approach tables, as well as travel between tables and seating to reach their destination.
Reception and service counters in many buildings are one of the primary points where many visitors interact with buildings. Proving an option at a lower height with knee and foot clearance below will allow a wheelchair user to approach and perform the tasks required at the counter (e.g. input a PIN number at a point of purchase, complete a document at a service desk, etc.) It should be noted that the anticipated level of interaction can affect the size of the clearances which would be optimal.
In designing counters, the needs of people with sensory disabilities is also important. Having an assisted listening system will facilitate communication with people with hearing impairments, while increased lighting levels as well as careful selection of finishes can greatly assist people with vision impairments in assisting in improving visual acuity and reducing glare.
Controls, Keypads and Interfaces
The common reach range for seated and standing users is believed to be between 700 millimetres and 1200 millimetres above the finished floor level. Providing controls and interfaces within this reach range is therefore desirable.
Other considerations vary enormously depending on the application, but principles such as providing larger and contrasting buttons, tactile cues (e.g. Braille elements and buttons which are proud or the surrounding casing), increased lighting levels and larger circulation in the immediate vicinity apply in most instances.
Of course, there are great many other joinery and fixture items such as desks, storage units, drinking fountains, beds, wet areas, windows and so one which all can be better designed, and which are in part at least addressed in the aforementioned standards.