Design for disability access and mobility

By Geoffrey A Raphael
Design Director - Medifit Design & Construct

This article was published in 2004 in Australasian Dental Practice 

A typical start to the day can often have hidden obstacles to overcome, starting with the road rage on the drive to work.

The battle to find a parking spot resulting in a long walk to the office, complimented by an additional flight of stairs due to the out of order elevator. Just when you thought it couldn’t get worse, the empty milk container sitting in the fridge ruins the first coffee of the day!

A morning like this may have the catch phrase “I should have stayed in bed!”, but imagine the additional complexity of your morning should you have a disability that effects your mobility, for instance, a wheel chair. You may still have the road rage to contend with, but how would you feel when you discover a fully able person has parked in your Acrod parking space! After finding alternative parking, you realize the only access to the building is via a flight of stairs, towering above you like Mount Everest. I can assure you, that morning coffee would be the last thing on your mind.

The 1998 Australian Bureau of Statistics survey revealed that 3.6 million people in Australia had a disability of some kind. Physical disability was the most common, with 723,000 people reported as needing assistance with mobility. With the following statistics increasing yearly, compliance laws and issues are constantly under the spotlight, searching for alternative solutions to improve the quality and standards for people living with disabilities.

When designing a new building or refurbishing an existing premises, access and egress issues are imperative to ensure equal opportunity. Recent changes to the Disability Discrimination Act (DDA) effective since March 1993, makes it unlawful to discriminate against people with disabilities. Equal access must be provided to all or part of a building at all times with an adequate path of travel.

An adequate path of travel commences from the moment of arrival. Private car parking spaces need sufficient space to allow a person in a wheel chair to get in and out of both the car and the parking space. Access to a building must provide an unobstructed path; this path of travel must not include a stairway, turnstile, revolving door, escalator or other impediment that would prevent a person in a wheelchair using it. Where revolving doors are installed, an alternative hinged or sliding door must be provided.

The preferred point of access is via a ramp as it is easier to gain access to a building for a wheelchair user or person who is ambulatory impaired. The ramp should be of a gradient as required by Australian Standards 1428.1 of 1:14 if over 2500mm in length or 1:8 if below this length. A landing and circulation space shall be provided at every doorway/gate and constructed with no lip or step at joints between abutting surfaces.

The path of travel needs to be a minimum width of 1000mm and have a firm slip-resistant surface with a texture accommodating persons in a wheelchair and those with an ambulant or sensory disability. When selecting materials and finishes, it is also important to be mindful of products and materials that assist in a comfortable and safe visit for patrons.

Generally, persons in a wheel chair prefer a hard surface, while those with ambulatory disabilities prefer carpet surfaces, which helps in footing. When using carpet, short pile varieties are recommended with a pile height of no more than 6mm. The use of anti static carpet is recommended as the build up of static electricity can interfere with hearing aids. People with low vision require aids with colour contrast in floor finishes, as well as signage and tactile indicators. Handrails assist people with poor balance and should be installed on all ramps.

One of the main considerations effecting access and egress is the issue of entry. Every building must provide at least one entry door complying with Australian Standards 1428.1 Doors generally require a minimum opening of 820 mm. The door must be designed to opened with one hand, preferably via a lever handle as doorknobs are difficult to use by people with hand impairments and installed not less than 900mm, nor more than 1100mm above the plane of the finished floor.

Challenging design constraint regarding access is often discovered when refurbishing Heritage buildings. Recently our design team tackled the issue of an existing entry that did not comply with the Australian Standards of access and egress. Our normal solution to change the door was put on the back burner as heritage regulations prohibited alterations to the existing structure. After four months deliberation, an alternative solution was resolved to offer an assisted point of entry. An electronic buzzer system was installed on both sides of the exterior door to alert staff when assisted access is required.

Internally access must be provided to a sanitary compartment for the use of people with disabilities. Sanitary compartments for the disabled need to be larger to accommodate a minimum circulation space for a person in a wheel chair. Doors are required to be hinged or sliding with a minimum clear opening of 800mm. Doors that open towards the user require greater circulation spaces than doors opening away from the user. The exact location of the WC pan, cistern, grab rails, toilet paper dispensers, washbasins and mirrors must comply with AS 1428.1

Door hardware in sanitary compartments needs to be lever-type handles and to be opened with one hand. Water taps shall have levers, capstan handles or sensor plate controls. Where hot water is provided, the water is required to be delivered through a mixing spout; alternately, if separate taps are provided for hot and cold water, the hot tap must be placed above the cold tap, or placed to the left side of the cold water tap.

There are many factors that need to be taken into consideration when designing a surgery or public space that may be utilized by a person with a disability. The DDA is currently in review, with a strong emphasis on providing equal opportunity. It is imperative current designs comply with new regulations and extend beyond the minimum to create a harmonious environment to be experienced by all patrons.