Designing for disability – know your legal obligations

When meeting current equality legislation, simply meeting the Building Regulations may not be sufficient

In the UK we have a variety of legislative responsibilities that directly relate to discrimination and equality, and these have particular relevance to architects when it comes to disability rights. 

Three primary pieces of legislation have the most influence, namely, the 2010 Equality Act (EA), the Regulatory Reform Order (RRO) and the Special Educational Needs and Disability Act (SENDA). Also relevant, to a limited degree, is the Human Rights Act (HR). All this legislation has implications for employment, transport, education, service provision and premises. There are also European considerations, however, this article will be focusing on aspects which influence design in the UK.

As the Equality Act is civil-led, rather than building-led, legislation, it is the activity that falls under the act, not the building

The Equality Act requires ‘reasonable measures’, has an anticipatory duty, and for those working on public buildings, has additional public sector duties. As the Equality Act is civil-led, rather than building-led, legislation, it is the activity that falls under the act, not the building. There are no technical standards that apply, but nevertheless, adherence with the legislation is obligatory. A building either enables or disables a person from accessing services or employment. Any architect or designer has a professional responsibility to provide advice on the requirements of the legislation. While it is the service provider and employer who ultimately bear responsibility under the act, were your client to receive a legal challenge, you would be their first port of call. It is, therefore, crucial that you have understood their responsibilities, and provided a building that meets inclusion requirements now and in the future.

The relevant Building Regulations must also be adhered to, and these vary between England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. Critically, it must be understood that meeting Building Regulations does not give you a get out of jail free card. The Equality Act requires that there is equality in use for all, and meeting regulations alone may not be sufficient.  At the inception of a project, ensure you interrogate the brief and what this means for the full diversity of users. Best practice guidance can go some way to helping you advise the client on meeting their anticipatory duties under goods and service provision.

Winner of 2013's Selwyn Goldsmith Award for Universal Design, Canada Water Library, designed by CZWG.
Winner of 2013's Selwyn Goldsmith Award for Universal Design, Canada Water Library, designed by CZWG. · Credit: Tim Crocker

The UK is leading the way in inclusive design and has some of the best guidance available, such as BS8300, The Sign Design Guide, BB102, Inclusive Mobility, Accessible Sports Facilities, to name but a few. There are also awards to recognise the projects that have best combined good design and good access. Qualified access consultants have been influential in the Selwyn Goldsmith Civic Trust Award and the new UIA Friendly Spaces Award, both of which celebrate inclusive and universal design.

The National Register of Access Consultants (NRAC) is in consultation with the RIBA to deliver an inclusion overlay to the RIBA Plan of Works, so that architects become aware of inclusion requirements when running a project. For a number of years the RIBA has provided CPD and specialist practice advisers to assist with inclusion. It has recently established an Inclusion and Universal Design platform on the Knowledge Communities web page, available for all to join. The RIBA is also working closely with NRAC and others to ensure that members can get access to the most up-to-date advice.

Inclusive design is essential; an accessible environment will result in added value, and satisfied clients and end users.

Jane Simpson RIBA sits on the management board and is a consultant member of NRAC.

www.janesimpsonaccess.com