Minimum Compliance Means Missed Opportunities and Mediocrity

By (Ms.) Joe Manton, Director Access Institute

There is no doubt that the introduction of the Commonwealth Disability (Access to Premises- Buildings) Standards in 2011 has seen improvements in access to new buildings and some upgraded buildings, for a variety of building users with disabilities. These minimum standards reference the technical Australian Standards that provide the minimum dimensional requirements for access relating to elements in buildings. These include elements such as accessways, ramps, lifts, doorways, toilets and more. The key access standard is AS1428.1 2009.

In addition, the access industry – including qualified, skilled and experienced Access Consultants – has also grown exponentially as other professionals such as architects, building designers, building surveyors etc. seek advice and surety that building projects in which they are involved or responsible for will meet the requirements of the minimum access standards.

Of course, this is a positive step in meeting the needs of people with disabilities. In fact, improvements to access will benefit many other building users. This is clearly evidenced by feedback from many building operators who acknowledge that by making provision for some people using wheelchairs, they are also meeting the needs of people who use some types of prams, strollers, delivery and shopping trolleys etc.

However, the expectation that the introduction of a minimum access standard for buildings will mean that the needs of all people with disabilities and the broader community will be met, is without question incorrect. The reality is that if building developers only meet minimum compliance requirements for access, they will be excluding many people with disabilities, as well as other users, from using their buildings easily and effectively. This will result in building developers, owners and lessees missing out on opportunities for participation in the services that their buildings can offer and maximising the potential of their investment.

Meeting minimum compliance requirements for access to buildings does not provide good access: it provides minimum compliance. Why is this the case?

Consider what the minimum access standards actually incorporate and on what they are based. It is also helpful to understand human access needs and how these are or are not met by the minimum access standards.

Exploding the Myths

Exploding some myths can assist designers and developers  to understand the limitations of the minimum access standards.

Myth 1: Access is the same as Universal Design

Simply put, Access is based on minimum requirements to achieve access for people with disabilities. It aligns with measurable benchmarks that identify minimum criteria that must be achieved to meet compliance.

While Access is focused on the needs of people with disabilitiesUniversal Design considers the wide spectrum of human abilities. It aims to exceed minimum standards to meet the needs of the greatest number of people possible.

Universal Design incorporates 7 key Principles. It is a design philosophy that targets the needs of all users of a building, product or service.

A building can be designed based on the principles of Universal Design and still meet minimum access compliance requirements but not vice a versa.

Myth 2: Universal Design is more expensive than access

This is often touted as a reason not to consider the principles of Universal Design in buildings. However, there is no substantive evidence to suggest this is the case. Depending on the type of development and the expected user group of the building, incorporating the Principles of Universal Design can be a lucrative investment.

In 30 years of working as an Access Consultant with many hundreds of clients, I have often been regaled with stories from building owners who have incorporated Universal Design into the development and have reaped the financial benefits once the building has begun operating.

For example, a function venue targeting ‘Weddings, Parties and Anything’ will attract more bookings if it can accommodate the access needs of all expected guests. If a guest at a wedding, such as a grandparent of the bride or groom uses a wheelchair and they cannot get through a door with a minimum clear opening width of 850mm or the corridor to the accessible toilet is not wide enough, (even though it meets the minimum required width of 1000mm), this may be enough for the wedding organiser to change venues. This can cost the venue thousands of dollars in lost revenue.

It is highly likely that there will be other guests with prams that are wider, scooters that are bigger and people with other access challenges who would not be able to get in easily, if at all. Most people want all of their preferred guests to attend and enjoy the function, not just those who can fit through spaces that meet minimum access standards.

Equally, if an older person who uses hearing aids is to participate in a function,  hear what is happening, and enjoy the event, then hearing augmentation that allows the person to automatically connect a hearing aid to a hearing augmentation system will assist. However, if receivers are required for the system or there is no system installed, the opportunity to be involved will be lost and the enjoyment substantially diminished.

These issues can be the difference between the function organiser booking the function venue for a few hundred people or going somewhere else to spend their money.

Conversely, when people find a function venue that meets their needs, they will often return and refer the venue to others because of their positive experience. Many thousands of dollars in bookings can be at stake. These and similar examples also apply to tourism buildings, retail outlets and community spaces.

For example, ‘day-trip’ tourist coaches that cater for many older adults, most of whom will not be using wheelchairs, but may be ambulant and use a walking stick or frame for stability and support, will not stop at buildings that do not have appropriate wide entry points or enough accessible toilets. Even if the building has met minimum access compliance, they may still not be able to get in and there may not be enough accessible or ambulant toilets to meet users’ needs.

Minimum compliance does not consider context and function. Universal Design incorporates these considerations from the beginning of a design process and consequently provides buildings that are more usable by more people, often for many, many years without the need to retrofit.

Myth 3: the Australian Standards for Access and Mobility consider the needs of all people with disabilities

The minimum Australian Standards used to ensure accessibility for people who use wheeled mobility devices like wheelchairs and scooters are based on research in anthropometry – the measurement of body sizes and physical abilities. The anthropometric data on wheeled mobility users that formed the basis for the technical requirements of AS1428.1 2009, were generated from research completed in 1983 by John Bails using a very small research sample that  only included individuals aged between 18 and 60 years. The methods used in the Bails study were not reported in detail, rendering them difficult to evaluate.

According to subsequent reviews of the study, Bails recruited participants from attendees at disability support centres and institutions. Eligible participants used a manual or powered wheelchair. Scooter users were not included in the study. Data relating to the needs of people with a wider variety of specific disabilities e.g. hearing, vision and cognitive challenges was not collected.

The research focused primarily on testing of full-size simulations of elements found in the built environment, such as doorways, environmental controls, furniture and fixtures that were configured to meet the Australian standards at the time.

Since 1983, many changes have occurred in the body sizes of the Australian population, the demographics of people who use wheeled mobility devices and the characteristics of equipment that they use, yet the basis for the minimum access standards has not changed.

The current minimum Australian Standards for Access and Mobility are based on research that is more than 37 years old and is significantly out of date. Therefore, it would be reasonable to assume that the access needs of many people with a variety of disabilities in 2020 will not be met by compliance with these Standards.

Myth 4: Dimensions in the minimum Australian Standards for Access and Mobility will provide independent access

The minimum Australian access standards were developed to provide access for some people with disabilities but not necessarily independent access. Lack of independent access for a person when moving through the built environment creates significant barriers to both social and economic participation in community life. If a person cannot independently access all areas in buildings and are reliant on the intervention of another person to assist them, it is inequitable, frustrating, time consuming and in some instances undignified. It can also have a detrimental impact on a person’s capacity to access employment, social situations, as well as their ability to manage human body functions, such as going to the toilet. Lack of independence can also contribute to ongoing physical and mental health issues.

For example, the maximum gradient of ramp that is allowable for minimum access compliance, is a ratio of 1:14. It is common practice for ramps to be designed to meet this compliance level, but it is not broadly understood that this ratio is designed to support people with an ambulant disability or who have assistance, not for a person to use independently.

For independence to be supported, the ratio should be no greater than 1:20. Therefore, if a 1:14 ramp was installed on the access path to a toilet, and a person was not able to use this ramp independently, they may not be able to access the toilet.

Myth 5: People with disabilities will be able to use everything in the building if it meets minimum compliance

The minimum compliance standards for access and mobility address access to the built structure. They do not address many elements in the building that impact on its function and use, such as fixtures and fittings. For example, there is no mandated minimum dimensional requirement for customer service counter heights or fire extinguishers, to ensure they can be accessed by a smaller person or a person who is seated in a wheelchair. Access to controls for projectors and screens in meeting rooms, acoustic elements and visible emergency alarms that support a person with hearing loss, and floor surfaces that are not visually confusing for a person with anxiety issues or dementia are all important access considerations. However, these elements are not addressed in the minimum access compliance regime.

Myth 6: Access Consultants know everything about access, disability and Universal Design

Access consultants with relevant qualifications (either Certificate IV or Diploma of Access Consulting) and who have at least 3 years’ experience should have the skills to provide good access advice regarding buildings. However, don’t assume they will have extensive knowledge relating to Universal Design. Universal Design requires a particular emphasis and understanding as well as a commitment to educating clients on the benefits of Universal Design, rather than just minimum compliance.

Talk with the access consultant before you engage them to ensure they are clear about your requirements and expectations, and ask for evidence to demonstrate they have the necessary qualifications, skills and experience to assist you with your project.

Access consulting encompasses a wide range of areas in the built environment. Some access consultants are generalists and others are specialists. For example, some access consultants specialise in testing luminance contrast, others specialise in hearing augmentation and others might specialise in Specialist Disability Accommodation (SDA). Some are well educated in Universal Design, but not all. Do your homework to ensure you engage an access consultant that can best meet your needs.

Whilst it is clear that the advancements in establishing the minimum requirements for access provisions in buildings since the introduction of the Commonwealth Disability (Access to Premises) Buildings Standards 2011 has meant that more people with disabilities will be able to access more aspects of more buildings, the scope for developing buildings that are more usable by more people are almost limitless.

I would strongly encourage all sectors in the built environment to consider what can be done better to benefit more people rather than settling for the minimum.

Meeting the minimum gives us compliance, but aiming for maximum means more buildings will be available for people more of the time and reduce the risk of complaint and the ongoing need to spend money on retrofitting spaces to meet the needs of all users.

If we allow ourselves to be constrained by the minimum we will never aspire to the maximum. The legacy will be mediocrity.

‘The course was a comprehensive and informative introduction to access auditing. The presenters were professional, interesting and engaging. I would recommend the course highly.’ — Jeff Ray, Transport for NSW