What is holding back progress in creating accessible buildings?

This article originally appears in Design for All Institute of India June 2016 (GAATES) Vol-11 No-6.
by Thea Kurdi
Global Alliance on Accessible Technologies and Environments (GAATES)

Creating  accessible  built  environments  –   that   are   actually accessible –  is almost as  much  of  a  challenge today  as  it was years  ago  when the first technical requirements addressing accessibility for the built environment were addressed in building codes, standards and accessibility guidelines. Certainly there  have been  breakthroughs in our  society’s understanding of what accessibility  means, some  progressive research indicating what dimensional requirements are actually needed for people using assistive equipment[1], and  even  movement at  the  government level  in  the   form   of  new   legislation  and   cyclical  changes  to building  codes.  Despite  all  these   positive  changes,  the   new building  projects  reviewed  for   accessibility  during  the   design phase continue to  have  many  of  the  same  issues encountered years  ago. Certainly some  problems persist due to attitudinal bias, and many  others are due to insufficient training in schools of architecture about  accessible and universal design. Yet  it must  be recognized those can’t be the only reasons.

This past  year  I set  out  to determine if I could discover what is hindering our  progress and  find the cause,  or causes, of so many of  the  common mistakes. It  seemed that   the  issues must   be occurring before the  design phase where accessibility specialists do  most  of  our  consulting. Speaking to  clients seemed the  best place  to  start.   These  conversations  quickly  revealed  that   the biggest obstacles were items that  had  a  space   requirement in conflict with the spatial allowances listed in architectural programming,  an   earlier  step   in  the   process  for   creating  a building. Following up  on  this information, and  in speaking with contacts at  a  well-respected architectural programming firm, it was  surprising to  learn that  there  is no  one  typical process for establishing room space  requirements.

Image used by GAATES with permission, and with thanks. Image by Tiffanni Reidy, Interior Designer

Image used by GAATES with permission, and with thanks. Image by Tiffanni Reidy, Interior Designer

The  American Institute of  Architects (AIA) defines architectural programming as,  “[the] thorough and  systematic evaluation of the interrelated values, goals, facts,  and needs of a client’s organization, facility users, and  the  surrounding community.” In summary, an architectural program identifies and prioritizes client and  user   values, determines  project  goals, and  also identifies project constraints and opportunities[²].

Who  is responsible for creating space  requirements? Typically this work is undertaken by building owners and  property developers who  often  do not have  the training, awareness of the need  for, or knowledge  about   accessibility  and   the   principles  of  universal design. For  larger corporations and  government projects, a great deal of  time is spent   on  space   planning during early building stages,  as   Master  Planning  or   Feasibility   Studies.  Smaller buildings with smaller budgets, space  planning and  programming is frequently done  by the architect prior to the design phase.

Floor plan drawing

The  size of  a  building is based   on  the  total of  the  rooms and spaces which are required for the building’s use. Determining the size of  each  space   starts with deciding how   many   people the space  is to accommodate, choosing the  equipment and  furniture required,  and   then   designing  a   typical  room    layout  which establishes  the   amount  of   physical  space   or   square  footage required. When all room  types  have been  designed and calculated, the programming stage  determines the size of the future building by  adding  up   how   many   of   each   room   is  desired  with  the additional space  need for circulation, which include corridors, stair cases,  and elevators, etc.

If accessibility requirements are included in space  planning, they typically only meet  the basic requirements of the current building code.  By the  time the building gets  to the design phase a year  or two  later, the  accessibility provisions are  usually out  of  date  or insufficient because the  building codes they  were based  on have changed or the items included to be accessible were not extensive enough   to    meet    the    building   owners   and    stakeholders accessibility needs.

How  could accessibility in space  allowances be missed so often? There are  many  reasons, but  this article will focus on addressing perhaps the two  most  important. First, as indicated by the nature of the  problem, accessibility specialists are  not  consulted during the  space  planning or  programming phases. Second, and  just  as important, only building code requirements are considered instead of future population demographics, which means the full range of functional abilities and needs are not considered.

Globally, there  are  over  1 billion persons with disabilities. Using Canada  as   a   ‘typical’  developed  country,  Statistics  Canada indicates that  14%  of  the  Canadian population are  people with disabilities, a percentage that  we are told will increase to 25%  by 2025. By the summer of 2014 in Canada, there  were already more older persons (aged 65+)  than  children under the  age  of  15[3]. We know older persons are more  likely that younger people to not only live with one  type  of disability, but  typically two  or three  as they  continue to age[4]. Experts in health also tell us that  we can expect that  by 2025,  approximately 25%  of our population will be overweight and  obese – which means they  will have  additional spatial   and    dimensional   requirements   beyond  what   codes currently accommodate[5]. According to the Vision Council of America, approximately 75%  of adults use some  sort  of vision correction[6].

In addition, approximately 70%  of disabilities are ‘invisible’ which means that  people with some   disabilities do  not  need   to  use assistive equipment that  distinguishes them  from  the  able- bodied[7]. Statistics are  also not  collected for  the  percentage of the population that  has  a temporary disability due  to a change in health, accidents and illness.

Making all spaces in our  buildings accessible is not  just  a human right, but  supported by  our  demographics. Our  statistical information does  not  clearly support this conclusion because of how  the data is collected. The number of people with disabilities is not based  on an objective or knowledgeable source, like from  our doctors, but  instead only relies on  each  of  us  to  self-identify as having a disability which of course will be inaccurate. The number of people who  would benefit from  accessible design is clearly not known and appears to be far greater than we design for.

By ignoring or not accounting for the space  needs of persons with disabilities and older persons as a part of the population of people who  use all of the spaces in our structures at the beginning of the building process, it is clear why during the design phase architects often  feel that making the built environment accessible is difficult, expensive,  and   frustrating.  When  accessibility  spatial requirements are addressed so late in the process, architects and building owners are  often  forced to make  difficult choices about where this space  can  be taken  from.  Resentment and  hostility is not an uncommon reaction, and frustration often  leads to blaming people with  disabilities  or  claims that   these   space   needs are ridiculous and unjustified.

If we  want to  stop  building discrimination into our  built environment  and   finally  make   significant  progress  for accessibility, the process for creating buildings needs to start including  accessibility  requirements  from   the   very   beginning. When space  allowances are allocated and included during the programming phase, the  problems and  limitations that  currently obstruct accessibility in the  design phase will be  gone  and  the improvements in accessibility for  all types   of  buildings will be immediate.



1 http://idea.ap.buffalo.edu//Anthro/FinalAccessReport.htm



4 http://www4.rhdcc.gc.ca/indicator.jsp?&indicatorid=40

5 http://www.phac-aspc.gc.ca/publicat/2009/oc/index-eng.php

6 http://glassescrafter.com/information/percentage-population- wears-glasses.html

7 http://www.limeconnect.com/about/page/the-facts

About the Author


Thea  Kurdi (GAATES member) is an  accessibility code   consultant and  universal design specialist for the built environment. Thea  has over  fifteen years   of  experience  practicing  and   teaching  accessible architecture with a specialization in universal design. In her  role as  an  accessibility consultant, Thea  has  assisted design teams realize the  benefits of universal design and  achieve higher levels accessibility on projects within the health care,  education, justice, institutional, commercial, residential, and entertainment sectors.

Thea  has  presented workshops and  participated in conferences, educating  design  professionals,  building  owners,  and   policy makers about  universal design of the  built environment. She  has also had several articles published exploring convergences in accessible and green design as well as how  to improve the accessibility outcomes in the built environment.

Related Link: Global Alliance on Accessible Technologies and Environments (GAATES)

Universal Design (UD) is an approach to design that increases the potential for developing a better quality of life for a wide range of individuals. It is a design process that enables and empowers a diverse population by improving human performance, health and wellness, and social participation (Steinfeld and Maisel, 2012). It creates products, systems, and environments to be as usable as possible by as many people as possible regardless of age, ability or situation.