MANY accessible facilities in public buildings are non-functional from day one. This is a poor reflection of the people who design buildings as a profession. The facilities are included without considering how safe and functional they are for disabled people.
In other cases, accessible facilities are totally excluded at the design and construction stages, and only added as an afterthought after the buildings have been completed. Their additions are severely constrained by the existing structures. Needless to say, many of these facilities are also not usable as well.
There is also a general perception that it is difficult to merge these facilities into the design as they tend to spoil the aesthetics and take up too much space. For example, a ramp with a gentle gradient and handrails is seen as spoiling the lines and form of a grand flight of stairs at the entrance.
Buildings should be designed to include the greatest number of people who will use it at one time or another. Invariably, these people include senior citizens, pregnant women, adults with children in prams, children, persons with visual impairments and wheelchair users.
To this end, professionals in the building industry in Malaysia should seriously consider adopting the principles of universal design in all their practices. Universal design is the concept of designing products, environment and communications to be usable by the greatest number of people regardless of their age and abilities.
There are seven principles in universal design. They are equitable use, flexibility in use, simple and intuitive use, perceptible information, tolerance for error, low physical effort, and size and space for approach and use. These principles are an evolution from barrier-free design and accessible design that are focused mainly on disabled persons as users.
Equitable use promotes the same means of usage and avoids segregation of all users. A seamless approach to the entrance of a building with doors that open automatically is very convenient as opposed to having a separate path and entrance with hinged door for wheelchair users.
A unisex accessible toilet that doubles up as a baby changing room is an example of flexibility in use. These toilets have larger space to allow manoeuvrability for wheelchairs which is also sufficient for the inclusion of a foldable baby changing station.
The simple and intuitive use principle calls for the elimination of unnecessary complexity in performing tasks. Keycard locks used by hotels need a certain precision in timing to use. This could pose a problem for people with poor hand dexterity. It should be better designed or an alternative locking system provided in such instances.
The modern elevators that incorporate audio, visual and tactile information is a good example of perceptible information that is useful to people with differing sensory abilities. They include control panels with Braille text beside the buttons, chimes and voice announcements of floor arrival and notification of door opening and closing.
Wayfinding signboards with large print, good contrast and easy to understand symbols and text are another example of perceptible information. Placed at strategic locations, they make it easier for people to navigate and get orientated in large buildings.
Drain covers with large gaps between grilles are a safety hazard to pedestrians. They can trap high heels, walking sticks and the front caster of a wheelchair. Such accidents do happen when people are not aware of the hazards or are careless. These can be avoided by reducing the size of the gaps to allow for the tolerance of errors in such situations.
No one should be made to exert more effort to the extent of being fatigued in the course of the daily routine. While a building with 20 steps to its main entrance may look imposing, it is unnecessary and bothersome for people who need to get into the building several times a day. Level access to the entrance is more convenient and accessible to people with reduced mobility and requires low physical effort.
Consideration should be given to the size and space for approach and use. Light switches should be mounted at a position that is accessible to a person standing and also to a person of short stature. Accommodation should also be provided for people who may need more space to move around like adults with prams and people who use walking aids such as walkers and crutches.
It must be emphasised that universal design is not limited to buildings and the environment. It also applies to utensils, gadgets and objects that we commonly use. Two simple examples are scissors that are usable with the right or left hand and large handled hair brushes for people with arthritic hands.
From the examples above, it is evident that the principles of universal design were developed with the understanding and acceptance of the diversity of humankind. They promote best practices that benefit society as a whole. Difficulties experienced by many people due to poor design of buildings and products can be alleviated or eliminated if these seven principles are given due thought.
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