Accessibility needs more than compliance

With regulation against disability discrimination now viewed by some as a burden, the changes needed to ensure a truly accessible built environment are stalling


  • Adrian Tagg

15 April 2021

Spiral staircase

© Adrian Tagg

The Disability Discrimination Act 1995 has had a significant effect on users of and providers of goods and services in the built environment. However, while it prompted big changes in the years following its introduction, the pace has since slowed – a state of affairs reflected by the Equalities and Human Rights Commission's publication of the report Being disabled in Britain: A journey less equal in 2017.

The 1995 Act was repealed and replaced by the wider-ranging Equality Act 2010, but this drew criticism from some who saw it as watering down the provisions of the earlier legislation. For example, in her book Are you an inclusive designer? published by RIBA in 2019, Julie Fleck suggests that it would have been better to retain dedicated statutory provision for inclusive design.

Improving inclusivity

According to the charity Scope, there were 14.1m people recognised as having a disability in the UK in 2020 – close to one in five of the population. Yet a review of published opinions appears to suggest a disconnect between public awareness of disability and the frequency with which people with disabilities encounter barriers to accessibility during day-to-day activities. Service providers, property owners, investors and advisers can therefore all tangibly improve inclusivity in the built environment.

With the vast majority of the commercial built environment comprising buildings that were constructed before access legislation was introduced, almost all will require some kind of retrospective works to enable ease of access. This need to make 'reasonable adjustment', as per the legislation, ranges from the provision of parking or adapting the principal entrance from the street, through to improving internal building circulation as well as ensuring facilities are accessible.

The challenge of providing an inclusive environment is exacerbated when it comes to the historic built environment and listed buildings, where reasonable adjustment must also comply with additional statutory controls.

Christ Church College, Oxford

With the emphasis on compliance with the 2010 Act, and the mechanisms in place requiring commercial property owners and providers of goods and services to afford access, the opportunity to create an inclusive environment is clouded by a sense of obligation.

Those working in commercial property appear to address most legal requirements by ensuring compliance and going no further. However, when it comes to accessibility provision, there is so much more to be gained from going above and beyond the legal minimum.

Researching the perception gap

Scope research from 2018 found that one in three people with a disability believes there are negative attitudes towards disability, whereas only one in five people without a disability feels the same. This represented a threefold increase in the gap between the two groups over the previous 20 years, despite the presence of disability discrimination legislation.

In my studyPublic and commercial attitudes to accessibility in the built environment – funded by the Harold Samuel Research Prize in 2019 and published by the University College of Estate Management last autumn – I sought to determine whether there was a similar perception gap with reference to the built environment, and to look at the specific barriers and incentives for inclusivity.

The research took a two-pronged approach. The first line of enquiry was to establish public attitudes to disability in the built environment, and the second to look at the opinions of property professionals, real-estate investors and service providers.

Despite the replacement of the 1995 Act in 2010 and the perception that this would reduce the attention paid to disability discrimination, the research identified that 90% of the public and 97% of commercial respondents are aware of the current legislation, as well as the obligation to provide access to goods and services to those with a disability.

While it seems encouraging that public and professionals alike are well aware of disability and the need to provide access, there is still limited awareness of the current barriers to goods and services faced by those with disabilities in the UK. There appear obvious differences of opinion between those with a disability, those without, and those involved in commercial property.

Figure 1: Responses to statement 'Commercial properties/goods and services are fully accessible to those with physical or mental impairments'

A commercial oversight?

As shown in Figure 1, the initial finding supports Scope's identification of a disability perception gap, with the survey of both public and commercial attitudes finding a similar discrepancy; this was wider still in relation to the perceived accessibility of commercial properties, goods and services. The gap increased further when the opinions of those working in the commercial property sector were canvassed.

The pertinent question is why there is such a disparity between the opinions of those with a disability and those without – including property professionals. It could be that, put simply, only those with a disability or caring for someone with one can express a valid opinion on whether goods and services are actually accessible, as a result of their own experience of the commercial built environment. Looking further into the research data, it is evident that just 6% of the respondents to the commercial attitudes survey identify themselves as having a disability, significantly less than the national figure of 22%.

Limited understanding

This reinforces the notion that there appears little or no understanding of disability by property professionals, other than what they are required to know by guidance notes, BS 8300 or Part M of the Building Regulations. Yet when asked whether the current legislation is suitable, only 40% of all surveyed feel this is the case.

Furthermore, despite overwhelming recognition of the 2010 Act and the apparent suggestion of its unsuitability, 83% of respondents appear comfortable with the concept that buildings only require 'reasonable adjustment' to become accessible. This is despite the fact that the term is open to interpretation, particularly when working in the existing built environment.

Although confusion surrounds the application of the legislation, 91% of respondents to the commercial attitudes survey agree that there is value in providing accessibility. With 22% of the UK population recognised as having a disability, this reinforces the potential commercial benefits of a fully inclusive built environment.

As progress on accessibility is perceived as stagnating and the disability perception gap is widening, it is time to choose opportunity over obligation and carrot rather than stick to benefit both society and the commercial property sector.

The next steps and future research is to examine more forensically the disability-specific requirements for access to demystify the term 'reasonable adjustment', and carry out a cost–benefit analysis for creating an inclusive environment. This will be covered in a future article.

"There appears little or no understanding of disability by property professionals other than that what they are required to know by guidance notes, BS 8300 or Part M of the Building Regulations"

RICS' view

RICS' diversity analyst Barry Cullen comments: 'RICS is committed to ensuring that the built environment is accessible to all. Making even the smallest changes to benefit people with disabilities has enormous benefits for everyone. Equipping people with this understanding can help support greater appreciation of the importance of inclusive environments.

'Chartered surveyors are required to have a working knowledge of inclusive environments to complete their APC successfully. The introduction of the mandatory competency Inclusive environments demonstrates the importance and value to professionals of acting ethically and ensuring that the built and natural environment are accessible, to the benefit of all.'


Related competencies include: Design and specification, Inclusive environments, Legal/regulatory compliance

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