Last reviewed 21 May 2018
Having a disability should not mean that you are any less able to use a building or its facilities. Laura King reviews how to audit a building to ensure it is accessible to all.
Everyone should be able to participate in society and having access to the built environment is a crucial part of this equation. This right to inclusivity is enshrined in law through the Equalities Act 2010 which requires that reasonable adjustments are made for access to goods, services, facilities or premises to ensure that people with a disability do not suffer a disadvantage.
However, inclusivity should not just be about meeting statutory requirements. According to the Business Disability Forum a third of employees are either disabled themselves or close to someone with a disability, and 16% of people of working age have a disability. In short, making sure your premises are welcoming for everyone is not only going to be important to your current employees, it also opens up your organisation to a much wider, more diverse workforce with all the benefits that offers.
An audit is the first step to ensuring you are meeting the requirements of the law and getting the best out of your facilities. Not only will the audit establish the “as is”, it also plays a crucial role in identifying areas where improvements can be made.
The audit should cover:
access and use of the building
maintenance and safety
Access and use
The audit will include a complete walk through of the building. This should be done from the perspective of someone using the building in its fullest sense, starting with travel to the premises, movement through the building, the availability of facilities (such as meeting rooms, toilets or canteens) as well as elements of the building such as signage and interior design.
When conducting an audit it can be easy to simply consider very visible disabilities, such as how steps might impact those in a wheelchair. However, although a single step could very realistically render a building inaccessible, the audit also needs to consider a wider spectrum of issues such as those with sensory or communication difficulties.
For example, light can play a huge role in how easy it is for people with a visual impairment to navigate a building. “When it comes to windows, particularly those that are south and west facing, bright sunlight can cause a lot of pain and disorientation for someone with sight loss” explained David Watkins, co-ordinator of RNIB’s Visibly Better project. “Large shapes formed on the floor by sunlight shining through a window can look like an obstacle for a blind or partially sighted person, such as a step or a hole.”
The solution? Watkins suggests ensuring that all artificial lights are fully diffused, adaptable and provide an even spread of light across the room. Windows should have controls such as blinds or tinting to reduce glare.
A second example comes from Vijay Patel who works for Mencap and has a learning disability. “Sometimes when visiting a new building, it can be quite daunting to work out where you need to go, particularly if there are a lot of floors and things aren’t clearly signed” he explained. Some things that would help include having easy-to-read signage using more pictures or simpler wording in a clearer font. He also recommends avoiding signs with long lists of text, such as those with lists of companies, departments or facilities.
Maintenance and safety
As part of the audit, checks should be made to establish that the day-to-day running of the building helps, rather than hinders, inclusivity. For example:
are areas primarily designed for those with a disability well maintained and available to use
is equipment, such as hearing loops or alarm facilities, in good working order
are corridors free from obstructions and are disabled parking spaces being kept free?
Safety is also a critical aspect of the review, including safe emergency evacuation procedures. Under the Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order 2005 there are specific responsibilities for ensuring that those with a disability are able to evacuate the building quickly and safely. The fire risk assessment should identify what is necessary, but it is good practice to review and reference it in the access audit.
“Sometimes, facilities managers are more concerned about complying with legislation than considering the practical requirements of people with hearing loss who use their buildings”.
This is according to a spokesperson from Action on Hearing Loss, who goes on to say that: “Open-plan spaces present challenges for those with hearing loss due to poor acoustics and background noise. Assistive technology can help as long as staff and users are aware that it’s available and know how to access it.”
This point is crucial and sums up one of the biggest challenges to facilities managers (FMs): how to embed inclusivity into the culture of the organisation and how to make people aware of what is needed.
To help do this, FMs can include management into their audit. As the key people at the heart of many decisions surrounding the building, FMs can play a vital role in embedding and fostering the right attitudes as well as day-to-day processes and technology.
The management audit should include aspects such as:
training — are staff fully trained, and is training available for example on using equipment or conducting an audit
is accessibility included in day-to-day maintenance inspections and audits
is information on accessibility readily available
do procurement practices consider or measure disability access and inclusion?
How to conduct an audit
To conduct a full audit you need to do more than a quick walk through of the building with a checklist. The examples above highlight just a couple of considerations that need to be made and there are undoubtedly aspects of the building that those without a disability are likely to be unaware of.
“The main reason why buildings are hard to access is because disabled people are not sufficiently listened to” explained Sue Bott, Deputy Chief Executive of Disability Rights UK. She suggests that the best solution is to listen to what disabled people have to say: “Contact a local disabled people’s organisation and involve them if you want to improve access.”
In this regard there is a significant amount of help available, and many disabled charities will offer a consultation service. For example, the Business Disability Forum and Disability Rights UK both offer bespoke training and consultancy. Other charities are more specific, for example, Action on Hearing Loss can provide information on how hearing support systems can improve accessibility. Staff, too, will be a valuable source of information.
Once the audit has been conducted, it is important that it remains an active document. This means that the findings need to be acted on and any associated workplan should be committed to and reviewed at regular intervals.
Making a difference
Good building management can vastly improve access for all buildings, even if they are badly designed. FMs are at the heart of this.
An audit should consider access and facilities as well as management, maintenance and safety. The results should form an action plan that is acted on and delivered.
To get the best out of your premises listen to what those with a disability have to say, whether that be through consultation with staff and visitors or by enlisting the help of a charity or access consultant.