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18 June 2018
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building independence

Compliance with the law on workplace accessibility doesn’t begin and end with ramps and dedicated loos – there are usability and maintenance issues that go way beyond these that are being widely neglected, says Nick Martindale.

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6 June 2017 | Nick Martindale

According to a recent report by the Equality and Human Rights Commission, fewer than half (47.6 per cent) of disabled adults are in employment compared with almost 80 per cent of non-disabled people, and that gap has increased in the past seven years. 

The reasons for this are many and varied, but one issue is undoubtedly the accessibility of workplaces and the ease with which individuals are able to get in, around and out of their place of work. 

For many years the requirement on employers – and facilities managers working within organisations or as service providers to them – was dictated by the Disability Discrimination Act 1995, which was later incorporated into the 2010 Equality Act. 

A key element of this, says Daniel Wilde, partner at Harding Evans LLP, is to facilitate access for disabled people, including making “reasonable adjustments” where needed. “That could be changing how things are done, changing a physical feature of a building, or providing an ancillary aid,” he says. 

“There’s no obligation to make fundamental changes; if it would cost a small business owner £20 million then that obviously wouldn’t be reasonable because cost is a factor in a reasonable adjustment. But if it’s as simple as putting in a ramp, and there was the ability to do that, then that would be reasonable.” 

Other measures could include installing lifts, fitting doorbells to ring for assistance, widening doorways or aisles in a shop to make them accessible for wheelchair users, or creating dedicated disabled toilets or parking slots. 

In practice, much of the remit for FM and those involved in designing new premises will be governed by Part M of the Building Regulations, which lays out stipulations on access and the use of buildings, ambulant disability, vertical and horizontal transportation, visual impairment and means of escape to a refuge. 

“Issues that we must consider include circulation routes and fire escapes, accessible toilets, showers, kitchen facilities and reception counter-tops,” says Guy Crabb, managing director of commercial design and fit-out firm ODB Group. “We must also ensure, for example, that light switches are distinguishable and door frames identifiable, for those who may be visually impaired, and that consideration is given perhaps for hearing loop installation in meeting rooms.”

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Lost momentum

Yet while such issues are often considered when offices are built or redesigned, there is still significant room for improvement from an accessibility and usability perspective in practice. Edward Finch is former professor of facilities management at the University of Salford, and suffers from multiple sclerosis – a condition his mother also had. 

“She was living at a time where as a disabled person her life was pretty much confined to the home, so things have moved on since then,” he says. “My experience over a more recent period in the last 10 years is that it has got better, but I think the momentum has been lost somewhere.” 

He recalls a recent meeting in a prestigious office in London when he was unable to exit a lobby area after visiting the bathroom. “I was stuck there for about 10 minutes and at that point it’s easy to feel depressed,” he said. “You feel left out of society, and that was an organisation you would have expected to have thought about that.” Often the issues are outside buildings too, particularly getting access to front doors, or pavements which have no dropdown kerbs.

Inside the buildings, a lack of maintenance can also cause issues, even where provisions have been designed in. 

“The gap seems to be when a building is signed off and handed over to the people who are actually managing and using it,” says Angela Matthews, senior disability consultant at the Business Disability Forum. 

“I visited an organisation where the entrances were compliant but when you get to an auditorium or internal meeting room people don’t know where to find the ramp or how to implement it, or a shelf in an accessible washroom has been taken away because it was broken and it hasn’t been replaced. Part M and legal accessibility compliance standards provide the framework but colleagues need to have a working knowledge of how to maintain the facilities as well to make sure those are continued.”

Matthews says the legislation is designed as a bare minimum, and that FM needs to work closely with the wider business such as HR to ensure that the needs of all people who have disabilities are met. “When we look at Part M, we see primarily regulations for disabilities and conditions that either can be seen or where there is a condition which a service provider or an individual already knows about,” she says. “What it doesn’t look at is a lot of non-visible conditions or a person who has not yet got a diagnosis or is going through the stage of acquiring a disability.”

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Non-physical disabilities

In practice this means looking at neurological conditions such as dyslexia, fatigue, autistic spectrum conditions or epilepsy as well as physical conditions. “We’re not just looking at building design any more, we’re looking at carpets, furniture and assistive equipment such as toilet cords, door handles and the colour of walls,” she says. The public sector now has a stipulation that organisations must consult disabled users when making any changes, she adds, a practice that is now starting to filter through into leading private sector firms. 

Adrian Powell, director of Active, believes employers in general have failed to keep up with the needs of those suffering from non-physical disabilities. “Many designers, architects and business owners unfortunately still see disability in terms of physical impairments,” he says. “While research into less visible disabilities such as dyslexia, autism or cerebral palsy is extensive, workplaces are still far behind when it comes to supporting these kinds of learning disabilities. 

“Under the Equality Act 2010, you’re disabled if you have a physical or mental impairment that has a ‘substantial’ and ‘long-term’ negative effect on your ability to do normal daily activities. Creating workspaces which cater to these ‘invisible’ disabilities should be higher on the agenda of many organisations.”

Finch’s experiences back this up. In his last job his workplace was assessed for possible adjustments on account of his disability. “I got seen by an occupational therapist in relation to physical adjustments, so mobility and visual adjustments with the display screens. I even had help in relation to memory; one of the factors with multiple sclerosis is that you have difficulty recalling words, and they put up a white board to help me with that. 

“But one of the things that wasn’t covered was workplace stress, so it almost made all of those adjustments irrelevant, because it was actually the stress that debilitated me and caused my optic neuritis, and that prevented me from being able to look at a spreadsheet or someone’s PowerPoint slides. It doesn’t matter what adjustments you make – unless you deal with those softer issues like workplace stress, which are less tangible, it’s difficult to deal with it in a holistic way.” In the end, he felt he was not able to continue working, and subsequently retired.

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In future, legislation is likely to focus more on such non-physical conditions, believes Clive Hall, director at BDG architecture + design. “There will always be legislation changes as other groups with disabilities are catered for: food labelling and preparation for allergy sufferers has already impacted on the catering trade and this will slowly seep into commercial office areas too, particularly with so many work environments blurring the boundary between work and leisure,” he says. 

“Mental health is still largely confined to managing stress in the workplace, but this too could see a change in workplace design, and there may even be a requirement to have a percentage of workspace given over to non-work use, say for ‘rest-rooms’ where work cannot be conducted. As more people work from home, legislation may strengthen how people have to be set up for home-working which could affect residential design.” 

There are certainly gaps in existing legislation, says Wilde. “In terms of access there is so much to be done,” he says. “The duty to make reasonable adjustments doesn’t apply to schools. Any new-build school will make the adjustment but there’s no duty for old schools to make adjustments to premises. If you think about how much is done online there is also potentially a reasonable adjustment to facilitate people who have difficulty hearing or sight difficulties.”

The government may yet intervene in this area, following the publication of the Building for Equality report in April. This recommends making the Department for Communities and Local Government responsible for bringing together all work on improving access and inclusion in the built environment, incorporating fiscal initiatives, public procurement practices and other examples of best practice to draw specific attention to the need for buildings to cater for those with mental health and neurological conditions, or who are neurodiverse. The announcement of the general election meant the inquiry was closed prematurely, but this is likely to return further down the line. 

In the longer term, Matthews believes it is business necessity rather than legislation that will drive significant change in this area. 

“A lot of organisations are saying they need to be able to equip people to be independent in buildings just because of the talent management issue,” she says. “They need buildings to be accessible so employees can work without them needing to provide support workers, or encouraging people to open doors for others. It’s not about what the law tells them they have to do, but what the business needs to let people independently use them. Facilities management is absolutely key to that.”

Accessibility assistance

For further information on creating disability-compliant workplaces, contact:

Centre for Accessible Environments

Business Disability Forum