Public Access: Ongoing requirement?

Mark Hastings, Managing Director of Public Access, reviews the current position and future requirements of the DDA

Since the initial introduction of the Disability Discrimination Act (DDA), which was introduced to the statute book in 1995, the pace of change in some sectors has been painfully slow even after the introduction of Part III of the Act in October 2004, placing a clear obligation on service providers to make ‘reasonable adjustments’ to the physical features of their buildings. Subsequently there has been little motivation to move forward at any great pace?

Providing access to all members of the community can be a major design challenge where existing buildings are involved, being a relatively straightforward exercise where new buildings or refurbishment is being considered. The Building Regulations, in particular Part M, takes into consideration what is required in terms of physical access to buildings. There can be circumstances when a building owner or occupier is required to make further adjustments to meet the requirements of Part III of the DDA. Interestingly enough, there is a ten-year exemption from the DDA in respect of additional requirements within new or refurbished buildings that comply with Part M. Features such as signage, lighting and acoustics may still need to be assessed to identify whether they generate barriers that make people’s impairments disabling. If so, a reasonable adjustment could be required under Part III.

Accessibility is more than physical access to the building. People always make the broad assumption that disabled people are primarily wheelchair users. Actually, of the approximately ten million people in the UK with a range of impairments (including visual, hearing and speech impairments, dyslexia, learning difficulties and people with impaired mobility to name but a few), wheelchair users make up only three per cent. And of that three per cent, only three to five per cent have to use a wheelchair all the time. Adjustments to buildings will not only include installing ramps and lifts but also disabled parking, hearing loops, power assisted doors, signage and furniture.

The DDA is different from much statutory legalisation in that it is enforced through civil proceedings brought by the disabled people who have experienced the discrimination. The DDA relies on cases brought under the Act to define parameters of the regulation and the obligations it imposes in terms of ‘reasonableness’. A number of test cases are currently progressing through the system, two of which involve major high street retailers, which will be determined over the coming months. Any judgement imposed upon a defendant will not be in isolation, it will have far wider implications as it will also apply to those covered by the Act, across the entire country.

The thinking behind the legislation is that relying on disabled people to bring proceedings under the ACT themselves is far more subtle and effective than depending upon a proliferation of ‘access inspectors’ for enforcement. The DDA also introduces a new dimension - while Building Regulations are set, the Act will evolve over time and its requirements will change. As Part III cases are determined, the requirements for effecting reasonable adjustments will change and develop. This creates an obligation to follow the case law and to periodically review or re-audit buildings to access what further remedial work is required. Although the theory is sound, the one problem with the DDA legislation is the current lack of cases being determined by the courts. Almost all to date have been settled out of court and thus no determination has taken place and no precedence is set. If the regulations are to be self defining, there needs to be a series of court cases to set the parameters in order that the architects, retailers and the like know what they have to do in terms of accessibility matters.

Accessibility in the UK is certainly moving in the right direction, although it still has a long way to go. A defining event is now on the horizon - the 2012 Olympics. Apart from being a major coup for London, and the country as a whole, what has been overlooked is that the award also includes the Para Olympics, it is a major event in its own right, but has its own challenges for the winning city. Apart from all the Olympic facilities having to be designed to be fully accessible, many buildings and much of the infrastructure in London, will need to be adapted and modified to accommodate the thousands of supporters who will come to watch, many of who whom will also be disabled.

In view of the above, Public Access Limited is a privately owned independent provider of access solutions dedicated to overcoming the physical barriers to access in-line with the requirements of the DDA Part 111, Part M 2000 of the building regulations. With a wealth of knowledge gained from years of experience within the lift and associated industries, Public Access has the ability to tackle the most complex of requirements, having the ability to blend new technology into both new build and existing buildings, quite often providing a complete turnkey solution. Website: www.p-access.co.uk