If 'Access Inside Out: A Guide to Making Community Facilities Accessible' has done its job well, you are now a bit clearer about how issues of accessibility and reasonable accommodation affect your community-based project. You probably still have a lot of questions though perhaps even more than before you started (different ones, we hope). So how can you get some support?
- Talk to DESSA
- Talk to the NDA
- Talk to your local authority Access Officer
- Make contact with local access groups, if there are any in your area. These are voluntary groups of people with disabilities, design professionals and others who aim to ensure improved access for people with disabilities in local areas. They may well be able to help you with many aspects of your accessibility plans. The Access Officer in your local authority will know if there are any groups in the area, and how to contact them and will themselves be a good source of support.
- Your local occupational therapist (employed by the HSE) may also be able to help, especially with regard to choosing equipment and fittings.
- Make contact with other community-based projects which have gone through this process. DESSA may be able to help you to locate them. Read about the experiences of Tralee CDP.
- Use your local networks and contacts through Community Forums, County/City Development Boards (CDBs), Community- Based Networks, Centres for Independent Living (CILs), Disability Federation of Ireland (DFI), Partnership companies, regional support agencies etc. to find out what other people have done and to enlist their help and support.
- Read some of the resource material and/or contact the organisations listed throughout this booklet.
Let DESSA know how you get on. Your experience will be very useful to others.
Real life access planning: access at Tralee CDP
Tralee Community Development Project began life in a sheet metal shed with a two-bar heater and strip lighting. In a way life was easy in those early days. Everyone had their own key to the premises, it was easy to mind because there were no assets to speak of and maintenance was no problem the building was so grotty nothing seemed to make that much difference so we weren't really hung up on the cleaning and repairs!
Nine years later we are sitting in what can only be described as a flagship for accessible community buildings. We have bought the premises. Originally we were tenants on the ground floor. Today we occupy two floors. Our building is also a major asset belonging to the community. So now groups do not have their own key, cleaning and maintenance is a full time job, and depreciation is an issue we have to plan for in the future. To protect our premises we require a caretaker, who is funded through a CE scheme thanks to FÁS. Even keeping that resource in place is a piece of work. But having a helpful person who is also discreet and sensitive on site is a support perhaps particularly in the case of people with mental health issues.
So if we are in the business of community development, why, you might ask, are we now running a building and taking on all the administration and management work that is required to run it well? The answer to this is very simple…THIS IS AN EQUALITY MEASURE. We are not in the business of managing buildings. But we are very definitely in the business of inclusion, enabling and encouraging participation in project and community life. We also aim to work in line with best practice. We wanted to build a project (not just bricks and mortar) that would meet the needs of all people but paying particular attention to the needs of people with disabilities, older people, parents and families.
Since Tralee CDP opened in 1996 we have had people with disabilities engaging with us as voluntary management members and as group participants. From the start this gave us the chance to observe at first hand people's experience of using our building. When it came to designing our refurbished premises we also had people using the centre to consult with.
Before meeting our architect we drafted a questionnaire which was given to all groups and project users. We went to huge trouble to make sure that we met the needs of people with a wide range of impairment or other needs (such as parents with buggies etc.). We spent as lot of time on the comfort, health and safety of project users. The information we got from the questionnaire raised concerns about things such as fire escapes, access to the first floor, what type of room size the different groups would need.
When we met the design team we set a few basic quality standards. The guiding principle was universal design for use by all (the tool was Building for Everyone). We also insisted that we would not open the first floor until our lift was installed and operational. In fact we ended up opening the ground floor nearly two years before the first floor. This phased approach to our development meant that it took longer but we got it all done to the highest standard and access did not suffer due to funding or time constraints.
Getting things right at the design stage is vital. Any changes afterwards result in additions to the original contract price. Once the bricks and mortar have been planned for, then all wiring and location of power points, telephones and other such equipment requires careful planning. The next stage is the positioning of furniture, filing cabinets etc for ease of movement around the place. Finally don't forget smaller items relating to day-to-day use by people with disabilities. For us this meant training and investigation into the right kind of toys and equipment for our new crèche, appropriate learning resources for our after-school homework club, and simple things like clipboards that people can use for writing in small group sessions. Training for all staff, management and volunteers is also a vital part of the equation.
Tralee CDP started out this journey with the very best of intentions and quite a bit of experience in working with people with disabilities. But despite our best efforts we still got some things wrong!
We recently discovered that our front entrance is lethal. A past project user called in recently only to find that there is a very slight incline at the front door and the door itself is very heavy. She uses a large and heavy motorised wheelchair. She could have rolled back out in front of traffic. Shock and horror! How could we have made this mistake?
So, using hindsight, our advice to anyone developing an accessible building is:
- The most important thing to realise is that people with the same impairments can have very different needs. So invite a wide range of people in to talk to you before you draft up any plans with your design team.
- Make sure you get the right architect. Pick someone who has experience of access issues. Ask to talk to past clients and visit their premises to see the quality of the work.
- Visit as many other accessible community buildings as possible. Ask people what is the best and worst thing about their building.
- Take your time. If you make mistakes you will have to live with them for ever!