What best practice should be followed when designing for disability?

Sometimes designing for disability can be something simple such as the automatic doors we have around Futures place. We have colleagues who use a variety of mobility aids to get around, so the automatic doors just makes things easier.

There's also a lot of recent and exciting innovation in designing products for accessibility, such as XRAI's glasses that turn spoken words into subtitles displayed on a pair of glasses to help the hard of hearing participate in the conversations around them, bionic exoskeletons that may one day replace wheelchairs and video game controllers specifically designed for gamers with dexterity challenges.

Have you seen any examples of good design that should be written up as best practice when designing for disability? When undertaking a project specifically aimed at designing for disability, what considerations should be made? 

Would love to hear your insights, tips, and real-world examples of designing with disability and accessibility in mind.

  • Hi Lisa

    A good topic for debate here.  The first thing I would do is set a scope to include the following (this is not an exhaustive List)

    Place (Domestic dwelling or Public space / Public building) eg 1920 3 bed semi-detached house vs a school

    The lesser abled person characteristics or ailments eg ALS.  ALS (Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis) being a very progressive degeneration of nerve cells in the spinal cord and brain

    What is require now

    What will be required later

    Is this a new design or a retrofit.  Sometimes retrofit can be vastly more challenging.  Eg can you fit a lift into a 1920 3 bed semi-detached house

    Research technologies that could be installed. eg using a home assistant to control lights

    Current Electrical Regulations from BS7671 and Building Control and consult occupation health.

    Next stage is to visualise the issues that could be faced or even better is to put yourself in the situation of the person the design is for.  Eg Borrow a wheelchair and try and use it in that space for a day or so, try going about your normal dailly activity?  This is very enlightening if you were to retrofit a dwelling.  What are simple tasks for an abled body person soon become a challenge that would need to be overcome.  Again lets use the example of a 1920 3 bed semi-detached house

    Some typical example of this are as follows.
    Power sockets in the skirting or just above.  These are difficult to use from a wheelchair.  Same applies for light switches being too high in some properties that have not had a rewire where the electrician has applied the new install rule of 1.2m to centreline of light switch.

    Other things that soon become apparent are doorways being too narrow with door handles and locks too high.  The step up or down on the other side of a doorway.  Patio doors or UPVC styled doors have a freshhold at the bottom.

    Bathrooms, for this we can look at some existing documents out there for inspiration like
    Approved Document M Building Regulations affectionately known by many as Doc M-Pack.  On a retro fit the biggest issue is the space required when a wheelchair has to be considered.  Also is the bathroom upstairs as is so commonly the case in most dwellings.  Then there are further considerations that people with certain illnesses need in the bathroom.  This could be as simple as needing the bathroom considerably warmer than the average bathroom so maybe in the 28 - 32 degrees celcius.  

    Kitchens are also very challenging.  Again take a wheelchair down to your local kitchen design showroom like Wren Kitchens (Other brands are available).
    Try and use the counter top to prepare food
    Try using the hob

    There are other things that should be considered to help the people in that space and generally make things easier.  Soft close door in the kitchen or wide paddle light switches throughout the space for people with limited physical strength in the their hands when suffering from ailments like Arthritis.  High contrast items for people with limited vision.  This could be black light switches on white walls.  Black door handles on white doors.  Again a lot of these ideas are dependant on the location, the person.  Most importantly in a dwelling is to try and keep it looking homely rather than a hospital.  

  •  Lisa

    My view is one day we are all going to be disabled, its just a matter of time.

    As Sergio has said we have Approved Document M which applies to new build and substantial changes to existing buildings. For us involved in electrical installation that means installing socket outlets, light switches and other accessories at heights above finished floor levels. It also specifies   the height of the main switch and circuuit breakers above the finished floor level. That is a Statutory requirement. So why an I seeing brand new houses with consumer units fitted close to ceilings just inside residential front doors? How is a person in a wheel chair or having some other mobility expected to access the main switch in an emergency, to reset a circuit breaker or carry out a regular 6 monthly test of the RCD(s). Why are consumer units being installed under stair cases where a person in a wheel chair access them?

    There is also the BS 8300 series of standards on the subject of Designing for Disability. This standard has minimum distances for sockets from corners of rooms for wheel chair access. It also has requirements for sockets with outboard switches in contrasting colours for the visually impaired.

    Others hear may have heard me talk about the failure of compliance. So why?


  • For bathrooms there are also other design objectives to met, some are a requirement like an extracter fan to meet Approved Document F (Ventilation) however sometimes engineering judgement needs to go beyond the minimum requirements.  Consider a person with limited mobility in a bath or shower.  They may be in there for 30 mins or so while they clean and prepare themselves in which case it would be prudent to have higher extraction rates or install the fan with a variable humidistat thus the end user does not need to intervene.  This need to be set at the commissioning stage.  Relative humidity for a dwelling should be optimum at the 40 to 60% range.  This needs to be taken with a holistic view as the ailment of the intended users may not tolerate the lower echelons of RH if they suffer from breathing difficulties.

    Still on the subject of bathrooms.  There is the subject of Fluid Categories
    The concept of ‘fluid risk’ is central to backflow prevention.
    Schedule 1 consists of five fluid categories each of which defines a level of risk.
    Fluid Category 1 – Wholesome Drinking Water.
    Fluid Category 2 – Change in the aesthetic quality.
    Fluid Category 3 – Represents a slight health hazard.
    Fluid Category 4 – Represents a significant health hazard.
    Fluid Category 5 – Represents a serious health hazard.

    There are Water Fittings in the bathroom that also require backflow protection.
    Bidets with submersible hoses pose the highest risk and need Fluid Category 5 protection.
    Showers with submersible hoses also need protection. In a domestic situation – the risk is Fluid Category 3. However, in a health care setting, this risk is deemed to be Fluid Category 5.

    Also as a final thought blending valves should also be incorporated into the design as to not allow the user to be scalded. 

    As I stated earlier some of these are requirements to be compliant and some are just good design and engineering judgement.

  • If we take this topic down the track of designing for 'inclusivity' then I think the use of personas is very important when undertaking any type of design project i.e. ensuring that you're using a full diverse set of personas. 

    One of my personal bug bears (which is something that irritates me every single time I get into a car) is that standard seatbelts are not designed with women in mind. I am constantly having to adjust my seatbelt while I'm driving to stop it rubbing against the side of my neck. Women generally have longer legs and shorter torsos whereas men have shorter legs and longer torsos so they sit higher in a car seat.  A seatbelt therefore sits comfortably across their shoulder, but for women, it really doesn't!  I know we can buy seatbelt adjusters but should they not come as standard in vehicles? Forgive me if they are now standard in modern cars, both my cars are over 20 years old now! Blush

    Another example I see all the time is the issue with right hand bias. My partner is left handed whereas I am right handed so things that are comfortable and make sense to me, don't for him. We have an ongoing argument on which way a key should turn to open a lock Joy. I was really pleased to see the other day, a craft workshop for Beginners Calligraphy that was specifically for those who are left handed! Heart eyes

    But yes  and  it is about putting yourself in someone else's shoes and understanding the challenges that others face. Slight smile

  • The obvious one, but one which sometimes gets missed, is to ask disabled people or a charity such as Scope (Disability inclusion for businesses - Scope for Business) for their guidance and following the social model of disability which puts the onus on society rather than disabled people to remove the barriers created by society which is usually the disabling factors.

    Examples of good design - level boarding in certain areas of the tube/rail network has facilitated better access and is something the rest of the rail network could learn from and extend.

  • Totally agree Kathryn.  I had to go and do a few jobs across Scotland so had to go from Watford to London then onto various places across Scotland via tube and rail with a wheeled stacking tool box which weighed about 50 to 60KG.  Getting on and off some trains/tubes was an absolute mission as was navigating some of the train/tube stations.  Designers for public transport need to take a good hard look at these issues.  I can only speculate how complicated it would be for a person in a wheelchair.

  • Unfortunately a lot of discrimination is embedded in standards, so takes some leadership from engineers to remedy. 

    The example you've cited of vehicles been designed for men is a good example - manufacturers design around SAR J963 which uses a 50th percentile adult male.  I would argue this antiquated practice is dangerous.

    Not only does it completely disregard women and disabled people, but the 50th percentile adult male does not actually exist either. Indeed whilst these use medians, the absurdity is best highlighted by the mean. If you were to take the mean human they would have about 1.9 legs, the mean adult would be substantially shorter than the median. The medians look so out of proportion that they would make a life sized Barbie and Ken look reasonable. 

    Lt. Gilbert S Daniels discovered back in the 1950s that USAF fighters had cockpits designed back in the 1920s around a statistical survey of pilots. And that this was causing accidents as few real pilots had any resemblance to the statistical medians. 

    Good design mustn't overfit around the user. And standards should be frameworks not straightjackets.

  • There was an interesting story on our local news pointing out that nearly all the new public EV charge points weren't accessible to wheelchair users - mostly due to things like kerbs and bollards, or having the space to position the wheelchair to access the control/payment screen or holster. It did seem a bit odd that such things hadn't been considered for such new infrastructure - especially as cars have been adaptable (e.g. moving pedal controls to the steeling column) for many years, so there can't be any assumption that wheelchair users can't be drivers.

       - Andy.

  • We already have standards for accessibility in the built environment - BS 8300-1 and BS 8300-2.

    We see this, in guidelines for the height range of switches and socket-outlets that appear in various of the IET's guidance for electrical installations to BS 7671, and these are usually applied to communal spaces (and homes) for new build and, as far as practicable, for refurbishment projects.

    There was an interesting story on our local news pointing out that nearly all the new public EV charge points weren't accessible to wheelchair users - mostly due to things like kerbs and bollards, or having the space to position the wheelchair to access the control/payment screen or holster. It did seem a bit odd that such things hadn't been considered for such new infrastructure

    Agreed ... especially as such considerations have been in the IET's Code of Practice for Electric Vehicle Charging Equipment Installation for a number of Editions (and hence quite some time).

    I think one of the issues is that if every EV charging space is accessible, the number of total EV charging spaces spaces (on a street, or in a car park)  is reduced, because accessible spaces are larger. In addition, in workplaces "reasonable provision" is required - there are different interpretations as to what number of car parking spaces being accessible would be "reasonable".

    PAS 1899:2022 Electric Vehicles Accessible Charging Specification has also been published (and is free to download). It is referred to in the latest Edition of the IET's Code of Practice for Electric Vehicle Charging Equipment Installation. For the reasons above, it's "to be considered" rather than mandated for every space.

  • Everyone here so far seems to have picked up on physical disabilities which are very much apparent. However, I feel there is a lack of best practices around those hidden disabilities, which there are many.

    Some of these are temporary, pregnancy, although not technically a disability, still needs consideration and reasonable adjustments made. We see those adaptions in many places, designated seats, lifts to platforms, etc.

    Its also what do you define as a disability - is it the absolute inability or just the fact the person is impacted. Someone like me works best in a calm muted environment. I'm not at my best in a noisy environment with lots of movement.

    The same goes with some long term health conditions, diabetes for instance, I would agree does not need specific design (except in the case of specific products to aim the management of the condition). But it can lead to other conditions that do need specific consideration.