Proactive approach needed to improve accessibility within the built environment

Proactive approach needed to improve accessibility within the built environment

Inaccessible workplaces are too common problem that disabled people face in accessing buildings and public spaces, and the Government must lead a charge in improving access and inclusion in the built environment, according to a report by an influential cross party committee published today. The Women and Equalities Committee’s Disability and the Built Environment inquiry has been examining the extent to which those with accessibility issues are considered and accommodated in our built environment, and whether more could be done to increase the accessibility and inclusivity of both new and existing properties and spaces. The report recommends public procurement, fiscal initiatives and transparently modelling best practice, while bringing the full range of work on improving access and inclusion in the built environment into a coherent and transparent strategy, with the Department for Communities and Local Government held responsible for making this happen. The report found that many workplaces are inaccessible, there is very little choice of where to live and the public spaces through which people need to move can be prohibitively excluding; all of which constitute an unacceptable diminution of quality of life and equality.

Disabling features of the built environment do not only pose problems for people with physical impairments, but also for people who have less visible disabilities including mental health and neurological conditions, or who are neuro diverse (such as people with autism).

The report proposes a range of practical policy solutions; but above all, improved engagement with disabled people to ensure that they have a meaningful input – both nationally and locally – to the creation of inclusive buildings and environments.

The Equality Act 2010 requires reasonable adjustments to be made so that disabled people are not excluded from workplaces, public buildings, and places that serve the public. However, the Act is not having the kind of impact that it was expected to have: the Government has left change to be achieved through a model of enforcement that relies on litigation by private individuals.

Committee Chair Maria Miller MP said: “Poor accessibility affects us all. Even if not disabled ourselves, most people are related to, work with or are friends with someone who is. Increases in life expectancy will mean that over time, an ever greater proportion of us will be living with disability, and our understanding of ‘disability’ has developed to recognise that those with mental health problems, autism or other less visible impairment types also face disabling barriers.”

“Yet the burden of ensuring that an accessible environment is achieved falls too heavily at present on individual disabled people – an approach which is neither morally nor practically sustainable. Instead, we need a proactive, concerted effort by ‘mainstream’ systems and structures – including national and local government and built environment professionals – to take on the challenge of creating an inclusive environment.”

“The Government must be more ambitious. Our current environment was not created overnight and will not be mended overnight – but those with the influence to do so have had over 20 years since the Disability Discrimination Act 1995 first set out the standards expected of them. Disabled people have the right to participate in all parts of life under the law; this is undermined if the built environment locks them out. Our report sets out a realistic but challenging agenda that, if adopted, can give this issue a priority and deliver the changes that we all need.”

Baroness Deech, who chaired the House of Lords Committee on the Equality Act 2010 and Disability in 2016-17, said: “I welcome the recommendations made today by the Women and Equalities Committee. They support and reinforce those made by the Lords’ report into the Equality Act 2010 and Disability. Our aim in that report was to enable disabled people to enjoy life, to participate in society, work and travel on an equal basis, as is required by the law.

“The ability to access public and private buildings, city centres and other parts of the public realm, is central to this and I urge the government to take the proactive leadership that this report recommends.

She added: “This is not a minority issue. As the population lives longer more and more of us will find ourselves disabled by the barriers that remain in our built environment – whether through sight, hearing or mobility impairment or illness. If we are going to remain active into older age the government must respond to the wealth of evidence in both this report and the report of the Committee that I had the privilege of chairing, and ensure that all our buildings and public spaces – present and future – are accessible by everyone.”

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