For people with disabilities, greater confidence that their interactions with the built environment can be independent and dignified is dependent on access consultants, building designers and building certifiers having access to reliable information to inform their work.

It’s unfortunate, then, that the reliability of such information available here in Australia is sometimes so questionable.

Much has been said within Architectural circles about the current lack of recent anthropometric data, and the existing data’s limited relevance to the general population; indeed, a significant portion of data currently available, and the studies providing the most comprehensive results, are based on samples taken from the US military. Using such information to design effective spaces and equipment for the Australian population and people of varying abilities, then, sets several worrying precedents.

The current set of standards for codifying access requirements in buildings for people with disabilities — AS 1428 – Design for Access and Mobility — is outdated. The data set underpinning this standard is the Bails Report, which was commissioned and conducted in 1983. The report had references to other researchers’ work — like that of Steinfield and Seeger — added to future Australian Standards.

Part of the methodology of the Bails Report involved sampling the wheelchairs available for use at the time, which included manual and powered wheelchairs, but did not include powered scooters. By determining the dimensions of these at the time, Bails was able to establish an 80th and 90th percentile wheelchair footprint.

The 80th percentile (A80) wheelchair footprint represented the maximum size of 80 per cent of all wheelchairs at the time, and the 90th percentile (A90) wheelchair footprint represented the size of 90 per cent of all wheelchairs sampled at the time. From here Bails also attempted to determine the dimensions of various building elements in order to allow suitable wheelchair maneuverability and access.

Prior to 2009, the set of standards AS 1428.1 General Requirements for Access – New Building Work adopted the 80th percentile for their requirements, while AS 1428.2 Enhanced Additional Requirements – Buildings and Facilities adopted the 90th percentile. However, the latest revision of AS 1428.1 and the new Disability (Access to Premises – Buildings) standards incorporate elements from both wheelchair footprints.

This leads to questions regarding how the other 20 per cent of wheelchair users are affected.

Research conducted since the Bails Report has suggested the A80 footprint is flawed and is more likely representative of a figure in the order of 60 per cent of wheelchairs. Furthermore, scaled models were used at the time of the Bails Report, and many of those constructed to test doorway circulation, did not have door leaves attached. Add to this the fact only 10 to 13 participants were included in much of the study — and none were over 60 years old — and the validity of the Bails report and, consequently, the requirements set-out in AS 1428, are further questioned.

Advances in wheelchair and mobility equipment technology are not obviously reflected in the current requirements, and powered scooter users were not included in the study nor were users of ambulant walking aids (the current set of requirements call for a toilet facility for people with ambulant disabilities).

The report, derived from the Parliamentary Inquiry regarding the Draft Disability (Access to Premises – Buildings) Standards, Access All Areas (2009), makes an unequivocal recommendation to the Australian Federal Government to provide funding for new research within a 12-month period of tabling their report.

The Government responded to this recommendation by suggesting the research be undertaken two years after the standard commences operation. This in effect brought the commencement of this research to begin by May 2013. To my knowledge at the time of writing this article, no such research has been commissioned or undertaken, and no announcements have been made with regard to this.

There is an immediate need to commission new research to re-establish a footprint (or footprints) that are reflective of the mobility aids available in today’s market, and to include all types of mobility aids in this analysis. Only then will the confidence of people with disabilities to negotiate the built environment grow sustainably.