Shortly after World War II, the UK government introduced the National Assistance Act (NAA, 1948) which called for, amongst other things, the establishment of welfare services for people with disabilities (PwD); with the Attlee government asserting that ‘the guiding principle of welfare services should be to ensure that all handicapped persons, whatever their disability, should have the maximum opportunity of sharing in and contributing to the life of the community, so that their capacities are realised to the full, their self-confidence developed, and their social contacts strengthened’.
Though the NAA made significant improvements in the lives of PwD through the universal provision of healthcare and medical assistance, there was no mention of the built environment.
The first official recommendations regarding disabled access in the UK built environment came from the British Standards Institution in the form of Code of Practice CP96 (BSI, 1967), almost 50 years ago. These recommendations were based on the work of architect and wheelchair user Selwyn Goldsmith; whose book, ‘Designing for the Disabled’ (1963) was among the first to set out practical standards in designing for accessibility, based primarily on wheelchair access (i).
It was not until the Chronically Sick and Disabled Persons Act (CSDP, 1970) that any statutory regulation regarding disabled access in the built environment was suggested. Under the CSDP, a developer planning to construct a new public building, or carry out ‘substantial improvements’ to an existing building must ‘make appropriate provision for [PwD], in so far as it is in the circumstances both practicable and reasonable’ to do so (CSDP, 1970, Section 4). At that time, there was no further clarification of the term ‘substantial improvements’, nothing to suggest what might constitute ‘appropriate provision’ for PwD, nor any indication as to what counted as being ‘practicable and reasonable’ (ii). Unfortunately, Section 4 of the CSDP (1970) did not come into effect and very little changed with regard to the built environment (iii).
A second requirement of the CSDP (1970) was that local authorities were to cater for PwD when building public lavatories, again with little in the way of guidelines as to what provisions were necessary. The third requirement was that where a special facility was provided for PwD, it had to be prominently signposted, though at that time, there was no requirement for signs to be standardised (see ii). The CSDP (1970) also introduced the Orange Badge Scheme (nowadays it’s the Blue Badge Scheme) which waived parking restrictions for PwD who were eligible and able to apply, and insisted on the provision of more disabled parking spaces.
The next statutory instrument to effect the plight of PwD was the Transport Act of 1978; this Act was drawn up after a 1973 Department of Environment circular urged that buses and trains should be immediately adapted to allow better access for PwD , and that all future vehicles should be designed with accessibility in mind. The Transport Act (1978) was the first UK transport policy to include any mention of PwD; it encouraged transport commissioners to ‘bear in mind the needs of handicapped people when scrutinising routes, timetables, and proposed bus stops’ (see ii). Again, there was no supporting documentation detailing what needs should be considered or exactly what adaptations would be beneficial.
Both the Disabled Persons (Services, Consultation and Representation) Act (1986) and the Community Care Act (1990) recognized some of the shortfalls of previous policies when portraying the difficulties faced by PwD and in the measures implemented in attempts to reduce said difficulties; with limited guidance on how to rectify the situation (iv).
The introduction of Approved Document M (ADM) to the Building Regulations in 1987 and its extension in 1992 set out statutory requirements for accessibility in both new buildings and in existing buildings undergoing improvements. The requirements were essentially an augmented revision of the CP96 recommendations from some 20 years previous (see i). ADM appeared to be a ‘radical breakthrough’ in UK access legislation as the area of control had been increased to include the access of all public and commercial buildings and the document provided detailed standards which should be adhered to during the planning and construction of any new building or when substantially modifying existing buildings. The inclusion of standards provided more clarification as to what was necessary in making a building accessible, though much like the CSDP before it, ADM only insisted on access ‘where reasonable’, making the required adaptations easily avoidable in all but new constructions (v).
The first policy to make a substantial difference to PwD was the Disability Discrimination Act of 1995. This Act highlighted four main kinds of discrimination faced by PwD: direct discrimination, disability-related discrimination, victimisation, and failure to make reasonable adjustments. Through the DDA (1995), PwD were, for the first time, given the right to challenge discrimination when accessing goods and services (vi). The DDA was enacted some 11 years prior to the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (2006), and was the first formal acknowledgement by the UK government that the issue of disability was one of equality and human rights. The DDA (1995) entitled PwD to rights in accessing goods, facilities, services and employment; and also afforded them equal opportunities with regards to buying or renting land or property (vii).
The goals of the DDA (1995) appeared to be a move towards those set out in the social model of disability, though it is important to note that the manner in which the DDA is written entitles PwD access only to goods, facilities and services and not necessarily gain access to the particular buildings where these services are normally made available to the public (see vii). In other words a shop does not need to be physically accessible to PwD as long as there is provision of some means of accessing the goods for sale within, such as a doorbell to ring for assistance outside the premises. Imrie (see v) suggests that ‘such provisions are problematical because they reinforce the idea that a disability is somehow reducible to the individual impairment (‘blame the victim’) while refusing to acknowledge that [PwD] have legitimate claims to the same rights of access to places that other people have’.
The initial combination of DDA (1995) and ADM (1992) appeared to leave PwD in a very strong position regarding their rights to access goods and services, though the vagueness and ambiguity with which both were written, along with the fact that there were virtually no repercussions for non-compliance, meant that PwD still faced a large struggle to gain equality of access (ix).
The basic framework of the DDA was set out in 1995; however the rights for PwD were introduced gradually over the following 9 years. It was not until 2004 that all service providers, including small businesses, were included by the DDA. The aim of this gradual introduction was to allow service providers adequate time in which to comply with the new regulations. The DDA was extended further in 2005 to cover rights of access to public transport; the results of which will be discussed at length in a later section on Wheelchairs and Public Transport in London.
Research commissioned by the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions prompted the creation of BS8300 (2001) by the BSI. This standard was based on ‘ergonomic research’ into the interaction between PwD and their environment and provided both technical specifications and an explanation of the reasoning behind them (see vii). This appears to be the first time that a large cross section of PwD were consulted with regard to their access requirements and as such BS8300 promoted a much more inclusive approach to design; suggesting that buildings should be planned in such a way as to meet the access needs of all, no longer referring specifically to ‘disabled people’, and without the need for segregated or specialist provisions for PwD. The ADM underwent a substantial revision in 2004 to include the guidance provided in BS8300. ADM was again updated in 2010 and 2013, though these later modifications apply only to the layout and structure of the document as opposed to regulatory changes affecting PwD.
The Equality Act was passed into law in April 2010 and came into force in October of the same year. It merged 116 pieces of the UK’s antidiscrimination legislation, including the DDA (2005), into one single Act (x). There were no significant changes in legislation pertaining to PwD. The consolidation of previous antidiscrimination legislation is intended to assist individuals in understanding both their own rights and the rights of other groups, and to help businesses understand what is required of them in complying with legislation (see vi)
The rights established in the DDA (2005) are upheld through the Equality Act (2010) and are current at the time of writing this paper. According to the Equality Act (2010) it is unlawful for service providers to:-
- Refuse to provide a service to any PwD without justification.
- Provide a service to a lesser standard or on worse terms without justification.
- Fail to make ‘reasonable adjustments’ to the provision of services to ensure that there is no discrimination against PwD.
Service providers of all sizes and across all sectors are now obliged to anticipate problems and barriers which may be faced by PwD and must take reasonable steps to ensure that they can be overcome. It is no longer sufficient for a service provider to wait until a PwD identifies an issue before considering making a change.
For more information please read my research project, Accessible London?
(i) Clarkson et al. – Inclusive Design: Design for the Whole Population – 2003
(ii) Borsay – Equal Opportunities? A review of Transport and Environmental Design for People with Physical Disabilities – The Town Planning Review, 1982
(iii) Holmes-Seidle – Barrier-Free Design: A Manual for Building Designers and Managers, 1996
(iv) Oliver & Barnes – The New Politics of Disablement, 2012
(v) Imrie – Challenging Disabled Access in the Built Environment: An Evaluation of Evidence from the United Kingdom – The Town Planning Review, 1997
(vi) Gore & Parckar – Rights and Reality: Disabled People’s Experiences of Accessing Goods and Services – Leonard Cheshire Disability, 2010
(vii) Bromley et al. – City Centre Accessibility for Wheelchair Users: The Consumer Perspective and Planning Implications – Cities, 2007
(viii) Disability Rights Commission – Creating an Inclusive Environment, 2003
(ix) Imrie & Kumar – Focusing on Disability and Access in the Built Environment – Disability and Society, 1998
(x) Equality and Human Rights Commission – What is the Equality Act?, 2014