Time to design workplaces for disability



DESIGNING for disability is no longer an optional extra - it will become a legal requirement for many businesses with the introduction of the final phase of the 1995 Disability Discrimination Act in October next year.

As a result, we are likely to see new products and trends in the design and specification of work-based interiors across the UK.

The access to premises section of the Act states that all businesses providing goods, facilities or services to the public must ensure that reasonable changes are made, where necessary, to the physical features of their premises.

This applies not only to external access facilities, but also to the acquisition and modification of furniture and equipment within buildings and businesses are being urged to act now to comply with the new law.

For many office-based employers, adapting their internal environments for disabled people does not require the purchase of specialist equipment - rather it means opting for adjustable furniture which can be adapted for disabled people. In fact this furniture may be equally beneficial to able-bodied users, who themselves come in many shapes and sizes.

Height adjustable desks are a good example, and are one of the main elements of a well-adapted office environment. Too often, wheelchair users are forced to lean forward to reach a desk, or alternatively they sit with a computer keyboard on their lap because the work surface is too low to allow a wheelchair to slide under.

Height adjustable desks can also be tilted to alter the height or angle of a computer monitor and the desks can be adjusted just as easily when loaded. The alteration mechanisms can also be accessed easily by disabled people and feature either a ratchet mechanism, or are electronically controlled via a push button.

Of course, not all disabled people are wheelchair users, and for those who need an easily adaptable but fully supportive seat, there are several good examples available.

If possible, employers should consider seats with integral headrests, which support the user's head, neck and spinal cord, as some disabled people are unable to manoeuvre in this way. One notable chair design effectively moulds itself to each user's stature, body dimensions and weight with few necessary manual adjustments and again, it is equally beneficial for disabled and able-bodied people.

In some cases, it may be possible to provide computer keyboard users with a platform which puts the keyboard within reach, leaving plenty of space on the desktop for other equipment. Another useful aid is a document holder which supports printed or written material in an upright position for easy reference. The user maintains eye contact with documents without causing any repetitive strain injury (RSI) on the neck muscles.

There is also a specially designed computer mouse available, which supports the user's hand in a flat position and reduces the chances of RSI. If used in conjunction with a wrist support mouse mat (which features a raised, gel-filled panel) the hand and wrist can be manoeuvred easily and efficiently for longer periods of time.

Perhaps surprisingly, the use of bright colours can also feature heavily in work-based adaptations. Some people, particularly those with eye or sight problems such as cataracts, are unable to differentiate the colour of a sheet of paper from an ordinary work surface.

One further education college in Scotland has refurbished an entire room with coloured work surfaces and called it "the bright room", in an effort to accommodate students with this type of disability.

The variety of adjustable equipment available on the market is extensive, so it is up to individual businesses to assess their needs and to undertake any necessary adjustments to their premises.

Whatever the requirements, however, businesses are being urged to consider these changes as soon as possible, in an effort to accommodate the one in seven people in the UK who suffer from some form of disability.

• Colin Syme is Edinburgh regional manager and key accounts manager at Claremont Office Interiors.