Your community-based project may not have the opportunity to move to new premises or to do substantial renovations to the ones you have. This doesn't mean that there is nothing that you can do, however. Many reasonable accommodations cost little or nothing and can be done quickly and easily. Others can be incorporated as part of your usual maintenance routines. Even if your building has steps up the front and tight space inside there are improvements that you can make. This section gives you some examples of ways that every community-based project can make existing premises more accessible to people with disabilities without spending money that you haven't got.
Working Out What To Do
It can be hard to know where to begin when you have only a few resources and a long list of things that you want to put right.
The best way to start is by consulting with actual and potential users of your services who have disabilities about what difficulties they encounter when they try to access your premises and services. Local disability groups can be helpful too, especially in assisting you to get better information on the number of people with disabilities in your area and the issues that affect them. (Obviously, consultation with people with disabilities is the best place to start if you are planning a new building.) Don't confine the discussion to the problems, people with disabilities are also likely to have a lot of ideas about solutions.
An access audit will help you to work out what may need to be done and how best to do it. Access auditing aims to establish how well a particular place performs in terms of access and ease of use by a wide range of potential users, including people with disabilities. It is a skilled job and is best done by a qualified person.
Want to find a qualified access auditor?
Your local access group or the Access Officer in your local authority may be able to help you to locate a suitable qualified person. The NDA is compiling a list as we go to press, so try the NDA Library on (01) 608 0433 to see if it is available yet.
Can't afford a professional access auditor? See what else you can do.
Unless you can afford to do everything on your list you will have to decide on your priorities:
- If you have a reasonable amount of money, a useful order of priority might involve making sure that people with disabilities can:
- get into your premises from the outside (and back out again, especially in an emergency)
- access and use the main services that you offer
- use the toilet (and shower or bathroom, if you have one)
- use any other facilities that you might have.
- Consider both piecemeal and radical approaches to the work. It might be that in the long run you would be better off reorganising the whole space rather than tinkering around at the edges.
- If you have very little money, do whatever gives you the best value for money by facilitating the people with disabilities who are already using your services or who you know would use them if they could.
What do people with disabilities need?
People with disabilities differ, of course, and not everyone will be facilitated optimally by everything you do. Clear space in a big hall is helpful to wheelchair users, for example, but can be disorientating for visually impaired people. Consulting with people with disabilities and then taking advice from a design professional is the best way to ensure that you reach the best solutions.
Here's one way of getting a handle on what needs to be done:
- Make a list of all your services and the places they are held in.
- Would a person with a mobility disability encounter any problems accessing and using those services, rooms and environments?
- If not, hurray! If so, write them down, then see if you can identify some solutions, or if you need expert help to do so.
- Go through the process again in relation to a person with a visual impairment, a person who is deaf or hard-of-hearing, a person with intellectual impairment and a person experiencing mental health difficulties.
- Think about both adults and children with disabilities, and both women and men.
You may be surprised to find that there is a great deal that you can do to improve people's access to and use of your premises and services, and that it needn't cost the earth.
Specific impairments have particular consequences for the design and maintenance of buildings and the external environment. Here are some general issues which may be relevant to your community-based project:
People with Mobility Impairments may
- have difficulty with long distances, steps, steep slopes
- be unsteady on their feet and liable to slip or trip
- find it hard to open doors, especially heavy ones
- have greater space requirements than non-disabled people wheelchairs and walking frames are rigid objects which can't breathe in to squeeze through a narrow space!
- So think about your premises, layout, furniture etc.
People who are Deaf or Hard of Hearing may
- need to see important information that other people might just hear this is especially important in emergencies
- need to be in a quiet place with good lighting in order to lip read
- need to use an induction loop system (if they use a hearing aid) or Sign interpreter (if they use sign language) in order to join in.
So think about your layout, how you give information, how you run activities etc.
People with Visual Impairment may
- bump into things which block their path including doors left half open, boxes stored in corridors, unprotected undersides of stairs etc., so tidy up now!
- benefit from a good level of lighting, with no glare or confusing shadows, and task lighting if they are doing something that needs it
- be able to find their way better with colour contrast indoors, kerb edging on paths outdoors etc.
- need to hear important information that other people might just see
- benefit from tactile information underfoot, like textured rubber matting to indicate doorways, or colour-contrasting strips on top and bottom steps, all of which assist safe navigation.
So think about your layout, colour contrast, furniture, how you give information etc.
People who have Impaired Hand function may
- find it hard to operate some kinds of taps, doorknobs, dimmer switches etc.
- People who have breathing difficulties may find they get worse in dusty environments or where certain kinds of paint, wood preservative or cleaning agents have been used.
People who have Intellectual Impairment may
- find complex places confusing and may benefit from logical layout, clear signs with symbols as well as words etc.
- People who have mental health difficulties may also become confused or distressed in unfamiliar surroundings.
So what can you do?
What is a loop system?
A loop is just that - a loop of insulated wire fixed around a designated listening area and connected to a power source, an amplifier and a microphone. When someone talks into the microphone the sound goes into the amplifier, which then sends the sound round the loop. Hearing aid users in the area of the loop who switch their aids to the "T" position can then receive the amplified voice without interference from all the background noise being amplified too.
Loops come in all sizes, from very small ones worn round the neck, useful for individuals, to others which fit round the edge of a room, such as a meeting room or auditorium. They can be fixed or can be hired for temporary use at events.
Want to find out more? Contact Deaftech, the technology service of NAD (National Association for Deaf People) on www.nadi.ie or call (01) 8723800.
Something for (next to) nothing
In the boxes below there are some ideas for useful things that any project can do to make its premises and services more accessible to people with disabilities. They are just examples. There are an endless number of small adjustments that you can make that will have a significant effect on accessibility.
The examples are all very general. Thinking about your specific circumstances is very important, for example, exactly where in your particular premises you position a photocopier so that a wheelchair user can operate it.
One thing you should certainly do is check your health and safety statement and policy to make sure that they deal with people with disabilities who use your services. Make sure that your escape routes are usable by people with disabilities and that any alarm system incorporates flashing lights (to alert people who are deaf or hard of hearing) as well as bells or other sounders. Include people with disabilities in any fire drills you may have.
Want to make a difference but haven't got a cent?
Here are some useful things that your project can do that cost nothing:
- redraw the parking bay nearest your entrance so that it is the right size for someone with a disability (if you have no parking bays of your own, ask your local authority to provide one in the street outside your premises)
- reposition leaflet displays, photocopiers and other equipment so that they are in the range of 450-1300mm off the floor the range in which most people can reach things easily
- next time you are painting, make sure that the doors are in a contrasting colour to the walls people with visual impairments will be able to find their way around your premises more easily
- reorganise the furniture so that there is a clear route through rooms and round your premises that way people who need more space to move around or who can't see things which might be in their way will be able to get around independently
- put up a notice beside the entrance saying that your staff and volunteers are ready to help any people with disabilities who may need assistance to access your premises and services (and that you welcome feedback about what you can do better)
- carry out a maintenance audit by making sure that everything you have is working properly and is maintained in the best possible state
- eliminate trip hazards inside your premises by tidying up, attending to unstable furniture, tears in flooring etc.
- clear the pavement outside your premises of bikes, bins and anything else that might get in people's way
- make sure that the cleaning agents you use aren't toxic and don't make people's asthma or breathing difficulties worse
- mark emergency exits clearly
- put together Personal Emergency Egress Plans for any people with disabilities on your staff or who are regular visitors to your premises (contact the NDA to find out how to do this).
Want to make a difference but have less than € 100 to spend?
Here are some useful things that your project can do that cost next to nothing:
- put down textured rubber matting to indicate to visually impaired people that they have reached a doorway
- put a visually contrasting strip on the top and bottom step of flights of stairs to show people with low vision that they have reached the end of a stairway
- make sure that you have some seating with arms, it's easier for people with mobility impairments to get into and out of
- put your information leaflets on tape. All you need is someone with a clear speaking voice and a double tape deck. Information on tape is useful for adult learners and people whose first language is not English, as well as people with disabilities
- arrange disability equality training for your staff, volunteers and/or management committee
- subvent a staff member or volunteer to go on a sign language course
- visit a project like yours that has more experience of providing reasonable accommodation for people with disabilities
- replace failing light bulbs and/or upgrade your lighting
- get rid of door saddles
- improve your signage. (DESSA has a document called Template: Access Handbook which gives some very clear examples. Sign Design Guide in the NDA Library is also good.)
If you can do so much on so little, imagine what you can achieve with a few thousand euro!
Very basic DIY access checks
If you can't find or can't afford an access auditor you could:
- get a competent architect to assess your premises using an existing access checklist and either Building for Everyone or BS 8300:2001
- do some very basic checking yourselves, in consultation with people with disabilities.
No access checklist is perfect. They are all slightly different. New ones come out all the time and they are constantly being updated. Some are easier than others for non-professionals to understand.
In addition, most access checklists use terms like "easy to use" and "adequate", which can be hard to judge. Some aspects of access auditing are very technical, for example, checking the correct distance and relationship between grab rails and other items in wheelchair accessible toilets. Others are mostly common sense, such as checking that door handles are easy to use (round ones are difficult, big lever handles are relatively easy). If you decide to do some DIY access checks, read Building for Everyone first. The website of Centre for Accessible Environments in the UK (www.cae.org.uk) also has information on access auditing.
A few quick tips:
- Want to check if a door or other space is wide enough to admit a wheelchair? Get cardboard boxes from the supermarket, flatten them out and cut out a piece 750mm wide and 1250mm long. This is the minimum space that a user of an average manual wheelchair needs. If it fits through the door without bending or scraping at the edges you are probably OK but remember that:
- in a doorway a clear opening space of 800mm (with 25mm free space on either side of your cardboard) is about right if doors are too wide they can create other problems, depending on where they are situated
- many people use larger than average or motorised wheelchairs
- if someone is pushing the chair the space requirement is 1600mm long
- an independent wheelchair user needs a space 1800mm square to do a full turn, and 1500mm square to do a three-point turn someone being pushed needs more space than that.
The good news is that any space that accommodates wheelchair users is big enough for everyone else, too. People who use crutches and people accompanied by guide dogs are among those who need lots of space along with people wheeling double buggies etc.
- Want to know if a wheelchair user can reach something? Sit down and try yourself but remember that many people with mobility disabilities don't have full reach or good grip. Lots of other people have difficulty in bending.
- Best tip of all? Involve people with disabilities in doing the checking with you but remember that everybody's requirements and abilities are different, so always get professional advice on key issues or before committing resources to building works.