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Accessibility isn’t an add-on when it comes to awards

Accessibility isn’t an add-on when it comes to awards
26th April 2021 Ian Streets

Access professionals have been taking to social media to voice their frustrations about inaccessible buildings being honoured in awards schemes.

The issue arose in a discussion on Linked In about the Civic Trust Awards, and in particular the prize given to the London School of Economics for its Centre Building.

The citation highlighted the project’s achievement in “exceeding the BREEAM Excellent target” and it made much of “encouraging” collaboration and dialogue and of “involving the whole school community” in the “briefing, design development and oversight” of the project. One can only assume that collaboration didn’t extend to consulting with people in a meaningful, pan-disability way.

There’s no mention of accessibility in the LSE citation but the invitation to apply to the awards says the Civic Trust “strongly believes” that projects should demonstrate “a high level of accessible and universal design.”

It may be that all of the other winners are models of accessibility and inclusivity, and if they are then it shows how the failures of just one case study can completely shift the focus of the responses.

Instead of appreciating the splendour and ingenuity, sustainability and – yes, accessibility – of the rest of the winners, the respondents on Linked In found themselves drawn to the obvious shortcomings of the LSE entry.

One person, a designer, noted that the steps featured in what presumably was an official, approved photograph only had a handrail on one side, making them very difficult to climb for someone who only has the use of their left hand side.

Someone with direct experience of that condition replied: “I could use it but I’d have to turn to the side and do the super slow one step at a time ascension. Totally not safe.”

An access officer who contributed said: “If the idea was to celebrate inclusive design a lack of understanding exists.”

A surveyor noted: “I do often hear designers say that they ‘can’t’ comply with building regulations because it interferes with their design vision. If they can’t do both then they are not very good designers.”

A diversity professional added: “Buildings ought to be inclusive and safe for everyone before even any consideration for awards are made.”

All of which raises the question of why inaccessible buildings should gain such recognition when they are faulty and disabling by design.

Among the Civic Trust’s portfolio is the Selwyn Goldsmith Awards, named after the man described by the Trust as the “founding figure of universal design” and bestowing recognition on developments which exceed the requirements of regulations and work for all people, no matter their age, ethnicity, gender or ability.

But the existence of dedicated awards which reward universal design doesn’t take away from the fact that all buildings should be accessible and capable of welcoming all visitors and staff, including those with visible or hidden impairments.

You should still invite entrants to set out the measures they have taken to make their products and services accessible, because it reminds them of their responsibility to take an inclusive approach. It also challenges designers to combine aesthetic excellence and accessibility.

And having extended that invitation, take the answers as seriously as you would all the other criteria, maybe by acting on the observation of another Linked In respondent who wrote: “It looks like the ‘whole team’ was missing an accessibility consultant.”

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