Universal design and designer awareness: The constraints of architectural education

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Report of the CIB Expert Seminar on Building Non-Handicapping Environments, Budapest 1991


Universal design and designer awareness: The constraints of architectural education

Joanne Milner, Dennis Urquhart, David Cox, The Robert Gordon Institute of Technology, Aberdeen, Scotland


An ongoing research project at RGIT is investigating Contemporary Public Buildings and Disabled Peoples' Design Requirements.

The research is a three-tiered study comprising the following avenues of inquiry:

  • a base-line survey by means of questionnaire to establish access needs and priorities, as expressed by a wide range of disabled people,
  • a questionnaire survey of United Kingdom Schools of Architecture to review the curriculum content and the nature and extent of access awareness,
  • a longitudinal empirical evaluation of both building design students' cognizance of barrier-free design and the effectiveness of a series of incremental educational techniques designed to familiarize students with the barrier-free design requirements of a 'broader average' of the population.

The two latter sections are particularly timely given the recent advances in the Building Standards Regulations and design guidelines within Britain which reflect a 'Universal Design' approach, in particular Published Document 6523:1989 (forming the basis for the revised British Standard Code of Practice: 5810) and British Standard 5588.

Indeed the signs are that the universal design philosophy, which marks a move away from the popular perception of disabled people as a special and separate group, will permeate all new developments in the field. The British Standards Institution (BSI) has embraced this approach and is operating a phased review and development of legislative initiatives which will eventually 'coordinate and harmonize' not only British design prescriptions but also European ones.

This paper draws on the foregoing research results, particularly with regard to architectural education and argues that, whilst such legislative measures serve as an important design tool, they are insufficient in themselves. Appropriate user-responsive design relies not only on compliance with the minimum design guidelines but on the designer having fully absorbed the principles of universal design into his/her design vocabulary. Furthermore, it is suggested that given the formative role which the vocational educational process plays in shaping awareness of user needs, it is also the most promising means of communicating and fostering a more holistic philosophy which may inform the design process from the initial conceptual spark through to the final detailed design.

Definitions of disability

Social policy has changed very rapidly over the past decade. The World Health Organization in particular, revised its definition of disability by specifying a differentiation between the terms 'Impairment', 'Disability' and 'Handicap', which were often used more or less interchangeably.

  • Impairment: "any loss or abnormality of psychological or anatomical structure of functioning"
  • Disability: "any restriction or lack (resulting from impairment) of ability to perform an activity in the manner or within the range considered normal for a human being"
  • Handicap: "a disadvantage for a given individual, resulting from an impairment or disability that limits or prevents the fulfilment of a role (depending on age, sex and social and cultural factors) for that individual"

The International Classification of Impairment, Disability and Handicap (ICIDH) has had important social implications for building design and development. The ICIDH has:

  • helped standardize the long problematic measurement techniques used previously to assess numbers of disabled people.
  • served to highlight the fact that people with disabilities are not a small and exceptional minority but form a significant proportion (16 per cent) of the British population, when used as a scale by the U.K. Office of Population Censuses & Surveys,
  • contributed to the realization that the greatest amount of disability is caused not by 'stable conditions' as previously thought, but by 'progressive or fluctuating chronic conditions' such as lung disease, cardiac conditions, arthritis or the deterioration of old age,
  • expanded away from the former clinically and causally derived categories to include social and environmental handicap,
  • expanded away from the former bias towards physical as opposed to sensory or psychological impairments,
  • helped establish a broader concept of disability, that is endemic to the human condition, based on a continuum which ranges from extreme health on the one hand to the terminally ill on the other, rather than a dichotomy between so-called ' normal able-bodied' and ' special disabled'.

Overall, this reappraisal, by embracing the consequences and not just the causes of disability, serves to clarify the role played by various factors in the process of integration, ranging from employment and the personal social services to the impact of the built environment. However, public attitudes change very slowly and are still largely out of step with the recent shift in emphasis towards a more community-based, less institutional, segregative approach to care.

Access legislation: Current and future developments

U.K. access requirements have recently been subject to a great deal of scrutiny and development. The principal driving forces behind this resurgence of interest in the field, are the changing definitions of disability and philosophies as regards how the built environment should perform for the broad cross-section of people in society.

'Universal design', 'design for the broader average', 'barrier-free design', 'macro design' and 'integrated design' are all terms used to describe an attitude which marks a move away from the 'separatist' approach to disabled users. The belief that 'special' groups of people require 'special' provision appended or added the whole, if and when resources permit, is a view which contrasts with the notion of design for all people. Accessible design supports those less able to adapt to the constraints of the built environment by building in design flexibility, integral to the fundamental design. It thereby accommodates a greater number of behavioral options. The following changes and proposals reflect this more holistic design approach:

British Standard 5810:1979 Code of Practice for Access for the Disabled to Public Buildings is currently being overhauled. Published Document 6523 : 1989 forms the draft basis for the new standard and emphasizes a move away from "the popular perception of disabled people as problem to a more balanced view of our population as a whole presenting a wide range of needs"

The revised BS 5810 will also support Approved Document Part M of the Building Regulations 1987 and act as a 'deemed to satisfy' document for Part T of the Building Standards (Scotland) Regulations 1990.

British Standard 5588 : Part 8 1988, although a separate code aimed at the evacuation requirements of disabled people, prescribes the provision, not of special and separate facilities, but an expansion of the normal parameters of design. That is, demarcated safety areas used by the public and employees must also be accessible to disabled people.

USA & Europe
British and European legislation has followed the American example. The recent implementation of the American Disabilities Act (ADA) 1990, will extend wide-ranging anti-discrimination protection to disabled people. In particular, providing for physical access to all new public premises, which must be "readily accessible and usable". The editorial of 'Architecture' assessed the impact of the ADA, "Accessibility features must now be considered as natural to buildings as indoor plumbing, air conditioning, and sprinkler systems, not as a resented checklist of requirements to be tacked on to a design."

The European Construction Products Directive (89/106/EEC) requires member states to introduce or refine their access legislation by the end of 1992, after which point each will gradually be brought into line to reasonably approximate with the submissions of the other 11 members. It is predicted that by the end of the 1990's all the provisions will be harmonized and enshrine the basic philosophy of barrier-free design.

The Dutch Central Coordinating Committee for the Promotion of Accessibility (CCPT) has published a European Manual for an Accessible Built Environment. With the aid of significant representation from member states on the advisory committee, and the International Standards Organization (ISO), the manual was devised to act as the key reference document, and basis for the development and co-ordination of local and national access legislation. The principal tenet underlining this set of guidelines is universal design or the "integrated approach" as described by Maarten van Dirtmarsch of CCPT, "The creation of an accessible built environment is therefore of primary concern. It is not just a struggle against threshold levels or narrow door openings, but a struggle against a certain attitude of mind or mentality."

Access needs and priorities of disabled people

The pace of change in access legislation in the past decade has greatly increased. However, will the implementation of these new measures alone be enough to ensure an accessible built environment for all? How well will public buildings perform their intended function? How effective will they be in meeting the design requirements of people with disabilities?

Research at RGIT is currently investigating these questions in an ongoing three year project. The aim of the first stage of the study was to establish the attitudes, needs and priorities of disabled people in terms of design. Notwithstanding the proliferation of local and national design guides, very little research has been carried out in this area. The guidelines are largely supported, not by primary source material but by BS 5810, which is currently under review, pending the urgent requirement for further up to date empirical data.

A large scale survey covering the wide geographical spread of Grampian region, including Aberdeen City (population circa 500,000) was undertaken. A postal questionnaire was distributed to 376 users representing a broad cross-section of disability types. The sample was drawn from the records of voluntary organizations, occupational therapy groups, housing associations and press and radio appeals.

The frame of reference was restricted to include people with physical and sensory impairments. Due to limited time and resources those with a mental/psychological/psychiatric disorder were excluded. The questionnaire was carefully devised and piloted to ensure that it could be understood by people with a wide range of communication skills.

The response rate was 43 per cent (representing 164 respondents). Assessment of the responses against comparable studies show sample characteristics consistent with national average statistics. The influence of the significant cultural shift, within the past decade, towards greater integration is well illustrated by the results. Comparison with earlier studies as shown in Table 1, (Goldsmith, 1968, Thomson, 1979),, particularly with regard to key services such as post offices and banks, show greatly increased usage, and suggest a desire on the part of disabled people to manage their own affairs wherever possible. This contrasts with the earlier tendency in the 1960's, as noted by Goldsmith, of the delegation of essential tasks to helpers. It should be noted that although the 1990 and 1979 samples comprised both ambulant and wheelchair users, all the 1968 group used wheelchairs. These figures are however, preliminary and when further analyzed should yield more accurate insights.

Table 1: Disabled people who had visited key building types at least once within the 12 months prior to the survey


Banks 4 20 64
Post Offices 13 50 63

The RGIT findings also indicate that although disabled people are becoming increasingly independent they are significantly frustrated by access difficulties, as Table 2 shows. Indeed of the respondents who visited Post offices in the previous year, a quarter reported access as being either "often difficult", or "impossible".

These figures were further compounded, when in response to the question "if access to the following public buildings was good how important would it be for you personally to use each?", 75 per cent noted against Post Offices either "important" or "very important". However, only 63 per cent actually visit Post Offices, which suggests that 12 per cent would like to but can't. The high degree of access difficulty posed by this building type would seem to indicate that the problems in certain cases are so severe as to cause some people to give up trying.

Table 2: Difficulty of access experienced by respondents, during the previous 12 months to given building types.


Building types access impossible often difficult sometimes difficult access OK no experience x
Post Offices   % 11.3 13.8 14.4 37.1 23.2 5
Shops   % 3.1 26.0 29.1 34.7 6.8 3
Banks   % 8.8 16.9 16.3 32.0 25.7 5
Libraries   % 6.5 4.5 7.8 32.6 48.3 11
Education centers   % 4.1 5.5 9.0 16.6 64.5 20
Pubs/clubs   % 3.3 15.2 23.1 33.7 24.5 13
Theater/Cinema   % 6.5 15.1 16.4 25.0 36.8 12
Health center   % 3.9 3.9 6.5 51.3 34.2 12
Hospital   % 1.2 6.4 12.2 65.8 14.1 9
Sports center   % 3.4 2.7 2.7 21.0 70.0 17
Local sports stadium   % 3.4 1.3 3.4 13.1 78.6 19
Swimming pool   % 7.3 4.0 9.3 23.3 56.0 14
Cafés   % 2.6 14.9 32.7 29.2 20.7 10
Friend's houses   % 5.6 25.6 26.8 35.6 6.2 4
Church   % 5.0 10.1 13.9 36.7 34.1 6
Museum/Art gallery   % 5.3 6.6 9.9 12.5 65.5 13
Public Parks   % 2.6 3.2 12.4 12.5 24.8 11
Public toilets   % 4.4 13.3 21.6 28.0 32.4 7

x = Missing value

The findings of the first stage of the survey illustrate a lack of congruence between the designer's perception of need and actual need as expressed by disabled people. These results are a sad reflection of the extent of restricted access, still much in evidence today. Although the vast proportion of public buildings came into existence prior to the implementation of access legislation, further qualitative evidence from the RGIT study, suggests that far too often even buildings which have been designed to accommodate 'special' needs fail in their intended function.

A series of 10 follow-up interviews with a range of disabled people brought forth a great deal criticism of, amongst other things, 'disabled public toilet facilities'. Indeed the consensus is so overwhelming that local government officials in the area, now refer to the many complaints received over time, as 'the disabled loo syndrome'.

The foregoing evidence points to a tradition of architectural barriers, and the disabled person, although now visible within society, must confront the reality that designers, by dint of their heritage, may often be ill-equipped or reluctant to make provision for his or her needs. This may be a legacy of many contributory factors, which include:

  • The marginalized status of disabled people in society, who are stigmatized and perceived of as a special group, with distinctive characteristics and separate needs from the 'able-bodied' public at large.
  • The tradition of the Monumental in architecture, which reflected power, prestige and defensive strategy by using steps, stairs and slopes as devices to metaphorically 'elevate' status.
  • The tradition of the Modern Movement in architecture, intended to cater for 'everyone' as opposed to an elite, sought a formula, comprising a set of user-need prescriptions which could be applied to any given design solution. The Corbusian 'Modular man' emerged as the ideal 'average' user, which promulgated the widespread misconception of the 'normal user' as young, non-disabled and male.
  • A lack of collaborative research within architecture, which has failed to seek systematic feedback, contributing to the failure of building designers to grasp the heterogeneous make-up of society and to communicate effectively and directly with ordinary people. Instead a process of self-appraisal through general discussion with the professional network or the architectural press has substituted.
  • The current design vocabulary applied by designers is largely drawn from often inappropriate models of 'excellent' rather than good examples of 'ordinary' architecture, which might better serve the every day requirements of the public.
  • The perception by developers and designers that providing more than statutory minimum provision will increase the costs of the development for little or no return.

Designer awareness

The preceding analysis shows that a change of attitude on the part of building designers and building owners/developers is urgently required if universal design is to be successfully implemented. However, are improved design requirements sufficient in themselves to ensure that this happy state is brought about? That question can best be answered by raising some points. Firstly, with reference to the RGIT respondents, who cited many examples of public buildings which had been built to comply with Building Regulations but still proved, if not completely out of bounds, a hindrance to circulation. These included: a new library, accessed only by two sets of very heavy, spring-loaded glass doors, trapping not only wheelchairs but crutches and prams en route; and a city bar with a corridor too narrow for a wheelchair, prohibiting access to the well equipped unisex toilet.

It could be countered that in the case of the above examples, the design flaws were brought about by the, as yet, inadequate design guidelines or had escaped the notice of the local planning department. However, although the real cause may lie with all three factors, the building designer must accept a large share of responsibility if he/she is to retain his/her important role as professional arbiter between the many interest groups involved in the design process.

"The architect-designer, among those individuals has the added responsibilities of coordinating all contributions and giving them spatial expression." This degree of control, expertise and creative integrity could be threatened or relinquished if the designer were to suspend judgement and follow a set of strictly prescriptive rules regardless of context. In short, design guidelines can best be described as tools, and applied as tools.

There is a parallel here with CAD, which has been received with some degree of ambivalence by designers, those tending towards the 'architecture as art' end of the spectrum perceiving it as a threat to their essential creativity, and those with a more technological bent, perceiving it as an ultimate replacement to the role of architects. This is not to undermine the very important instructive role of the guidelines. They are essential if a satisfactory standard of accessible design is to be maintained. However, they are most effective if used in conjunction with the informed interpretive abilities of the designer.

A common view shared by many architects is that access is a byword for ugly. They argue that it is a costly and unnecessary constraint, cluttering up clean pure spaces with hospital hardware, like grab-rails, stair/chair lifts and ramps. A number of recent public buildings in America are hardly exemplars of good design, due to unattractive features which have been tacked on to the main form, often as an afterthought. They do, however, serve as useful exemplars of how not to approach access, by attempting to comply with codes at a late stage in the design process.

Indeed, accessible design when applied by a practitioner cognizant of physical differences, far from presenting limitations, calls for the imaginative expansion of the traditional architectural vocabulary. Designers must be educated to adopt a more positive approach towards creating designs which facilitate or reflect the intentions of the user, and to respond to this challenge as a creative opportunity to bring about satisfactory design solutions. That is, solutions which demonstrate a high degree of congruence, or fit between the design and user.

Raising awareness of the full range of people's needs may best be achieved by many routes, including for example, disability organizations, the architectural press, academic research, professional associations, design prescriptions, planning departments, access panels, continuing professional development and architectural schools. However, given its formative role in establishing early concepts which shape the design process, the vocational educational training of designers is the most promising starting point by which to initiate a more user oriented philosophy into the profession.

In 1981, International Year of Disabled People, the then president of the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA), aware of the recommendation by the Silver Jubilee Access Committee that "Architectural and Design Schools give more emphasis to the problems of access in their professional training" stressed that this concern should be of fundamental importance to the architect and should be conveyed through training, not as a separate subject, but as an underlying philosophy applicable to "all circumstances."

Schools of architecture: Curriculum content

A decade ago, RGIT carried out a questionnaire survey of the 38 U.K. schools of architecture to review the curriculum content and the nature and extent of access awareness. 30 completed questionnaires were returned, representing a 79 per cent response rate. Given that all schools who failed to reply within 3 months were issued with a reminder questionnaire and later a phone call, it may be reasonably assumed that the remaining 8 schools give little positive consideration to access issues.

The results show that only 8 schools have course documentation which specifically refers to access requirements of disabled people. Within this context, design project briefs were most likely to address access considerations. However, although one school did cover the area in a Design, Technology and Management course and another in a series of human studies lectures, it was the exception. Far more likely departments approached access through project work, along with egress and other functional criteria, as and when it was considered appropriate; i.e., when the design failed to meet legislative requirements, rather than as a focus. 50 per cent of schools tended towards this line of thinking.

Of the 14 schools who provide a preliminary briefing on access, all do so as part of an introduction to a related project, however, in only 3 schools, is this pursued at any length in the form of a lecture. Nonetheless, access promotion, although addressed in depth by few schools (expressed here in percentages), takes many varied and interesting forms which range from liaising with local welfare and access organizations (16 per cent), running access competitions (6 per cent), running an awareness raising series of events (6 per cent), simulation exercises (10 per cent), inviting disabled speakers and experts (20 per cent), to giving handouts on literature references and information sources (10 per cent).

The definition of disability normally adopted by schools served as an approximate measure of the degree of access awareness. A broad interpretation of disability, which departed from the common misconception of disabled people as comprising only wheelchair users, suggested a high level of knowledge, whereas a missing answer to this question, the contrary. Indeed, as many as 11 schools representing 36 per cent of respondents failed to answer. Of those who did, only 2 replies referred to wheelchair users alone whilst a further 6 added visual impairments to the latter category. The 11 remaining schools applied a more wide-ranging definition, 10 of which included aural impairments, 10 elderly people, 4 mental handicap and 4 psychological/psychiatric disorders. However, only 16 per cent, that is 5 schools, extended their categories sufficiently by including children, women with prams and the economically disadvantaged, to embrace the principle of access for all. This leaves 25 schools, and possibly the additional 8 non-respondents, holding the now dated separatist approach to disability.

A third of schools responded negatively to the question, "Within the past 5 years, have any students undertaken a project which specifically focused on the design needs of disabled people?" The remaining two-thirds carried out studies which tended to fall into 4 groups: project work - 14 schools; live projects - 8; dissertations - 5; and research, just 2 schools. A selection of some of the most interesting project descriptions, using real briefs, serve not only as stimulating examples of the consideration and solution of the problem of physical differences, but also to underline the fundamental importance of this goal.

  • "A climbing frame and other structures designed and built by second year students for a local school for the mentally/physically handicapped."
  • "Housing for disabled persons by a student diagnosed as having multiple sclerosis who, between ending part 1 and part 2, became wheelchair confined."
  • "A polytechnic-wide consciousness-raising week of events followed by a design project based on the school of architecture building and its access."
  • "A 3rd year option focusing on the refurbishing of the students' union for improved use by disabled students."
  • "Non visual aesthetics for blind and partially sighted people"
  • "Light for partially sighted people, the design of a wheelchair for the third world, a hospice."

A large proportion (56 per cent) of architecture departments felt unable to address access issues adequately. Of these departments, 7 remarked that this was because greater staff awareness was required, whilst 4 and 5 schools respectively, stated that more specialist projects and more specialist lectures and exercises were needed. A further 4 commented that consideration of 'users' should be extended to all courses as a primary concern. However it was not necessarily the schools with the least knowledge of access, who identified a need for further course development. A number of the more active, recognizing the complexity of the subject, noted areas requiring further attention. Some schools, with little to no consideration of access, had no concept of the need to become more user-responsive and thus of the need to develop appropriate courses.

Overall the results of the study indicate a piecemeal, inconsistent approach country-wide. The degree of consideration ascribed to barrier-free design was largely discretionary and dependant either on the specialist interests of the department, one particular lecturer or even the existence of disabled students. One school observed, "We have two deaf students going through our course (2nd year and final year), this makes us more aware than we might be of special needs across the curriculum." Schools also tended to be complacent about access, believing it sufficient that the minimal design criteria were being met by students, thereby neglecting to increase knowledge and so, quality of provision.

Assessment of the disability awareness of architectural students

Stage 3 of the RGIT project methodology was formulated on the pioneering work of Raymond Lifchez, University of California, who found that in order for design students to fully assimilate and express the needs of disabled people in spatial terms they had to be directed towards a full understanding through a program of educational techniques. The RGIT study aimed to evaluate architecture students awareness of the needs of disabled people, and to test out the effectiveness of a series of educational techniques, in a largely typical U.K. educational context (as shown by Stage 2 in the previous section), with little experience of design provision for disabled people.

The sample group initially comprised all final year postgraduate diploma students. 5th year students were chosen since not only would their work and attitudes at this late stage reflect the almost completed effects of the architectural training course but also their work would more closely approximate that of architects in practice, thereby permitting a more reliable comparison. A program of three educational interventions influenced by the work undertaken by Lifchez, was devised. Each technique was designed to familiarize students increasingly with the needs of building users.

A workshop: video and lecture on principles of universal design. 
Feedback plenary.

Simulation exercises: on-site use of wheelchairs, crutches, bandages.
Feedback plenary.

Site visit: guided tour by disabled person of local shopping center. 
Feedback plenary.

The first section leads from the more theoretical, indirect understanding, engendered by the workshop, to the second section necessitating the direct physical participation of the students, through to the third section culminating in a meeting with a disabled person and the opportunity to gain a more rounded appreciation of user requirements. The longitudinal experiment ran for six months throughout the academic year 1990/91. 35 students were pre-tested at the end of October 1990, prior to the implementation of the educational program. At the beginning of May 1991, all the students sat the post-test. Both the pre-test and the post-test were administered blind, and in controlled conditions. In order to ensure that the real purpose of the test was concealed, students were not informed of the program until the pre-test was over. It was hoped that the five month time lapse between the end of the program and the post-test would also discourage any associations, whilst at the same time testing memory retention of the program.

The pre- and post-tests comprised an A3 plan of a 1967 Sports-Community center and a 1973 Leisure/Community center, respectively. Initially the same plan was to have been applied in both test situations, however given the success of the first test evidenced by the degree of thoughtful, considered responses by the students, it was decided that it would be a counter-productive exercise to force them to repeat the experience. Efforts were made to match the plans for equivalent function, size, date and access provision.

Each student was asked to examine the plan of the buildings carefully and to identify what she/he considered to be the 10 main functional problems of the building, i.e.; the ability of the building to perform its intended purpose as public leisure or sports/community center in the 1990's. It was further suggested that the student write his/her answers down first, comment on them, and then rank them in order of importance. At the outset of the experiment, students were randomly divided into 4 groups. Groups 1, 2 and 3 were exposed to Section A only, Groups 2 and 3 to Sections A and B and group 3 to Sections A, B and C. Thus only Group 3 experienced all sections and Group 4 none by acting as a control. However, there was such a positive response on the part of the students to the simulation exercise, that all the students, who had been at the first technique, with the exception of three students, attended this section. Group 3 was therefore reduced to only 3 students. Seven students, for various reasons could not be included in the results; students who for example, were present at the pre-test but not the post-test or vice versa.

Group 1: 10 students = Section A, B and C
Group 2: 8 students = Section A and B
Group 3: 3 students = Section A
Group 4: 11 students = Control

The test forms were coded for the number and type of user considerations recorded - including physically disabled people, the elderly, children, families and the situationally disabled. Rating:

1 = General comments about access and circulation,
2 = Comments about disabled toilets, elevators, ramps etc,
3 = More subtle or detailed observations about provision in terms of access to swimming pool, changing facilities, spectator balcony etc.

The scores were based on the rank (1-10) of importance assigned by the student to the consideration, these were then subtracted from 11, and multiplied by the sum of the rating. A high score equating with a high degree of awareness. Comparison of the post-scores of the treated and control group using the Mann-Whitney significance test indicate a highly significant increase in awareness at 0.02 per cent on the part of the treated group. The pre-scores of the treated and control groups were also checked for any disparity, however, there was no significant difference. Furthermore, the increase in the scores between the treated and the control group illustrated a significant increase of 0.04 per cent on the part of the treated group.

These results clearly demonstrate the effectiveness of the program in sensitizing students to a wider appreciation of user requirements. Figure 3 shows an awareness increase within the 3 treated groups. However, it also reveals correspondent growth within the control group. The possibility of the control group becoming informed via an informal network was anticipated at the outset of the experiment, given the close community of the year group. However, the decision was made to continue, as sampling all the students from one year was a way of ensuring that all had the same educational experiences. The 'information leak' was also viewed as an encouraging and positive by-product of the program.

The Figure shows that those students who had undertaken only two and not three techniques demonstrate the highest degree of awareness. Awareness levels tend to fall away after the third technique. Interestingly, analysis of the responses revealed that Group 1 students tended to be more general and less specific about points pertaining to access provision. One student, clearly knowledgeable about access, commented, "Access to the pool and theater is awful". However, in the section of the form for rough notes, he jotted, "stage area inaccessible for wheelchair users", this subtle observation could not be coded. It may be that once students attain a certain level of knowledge, they become more confident in their judgement and feel less of a need to justify their responses, the implicit message being 'of course access is bad, its much too complex an issue to go into here'. Thus it may be that the testing procedure was not sensitive enough to record a change in awareness at such a high level.


The survey of the access needs of disabled people indicates that, over the past decade, there has been a significant cultural shift towards their greater integration into the community. However, the design of key buildings has not kept pace with the changing demands and requirements of this group of users. Buildings such as post offices and banks show greatly increased usage due to the desire of disabled people to manage their own affairs. Unfortunately, they are seriously frustrated by their inability to gain ready access to almost all public buildings.

The survey results clearly indicate that most public buildings in the U.K., even buildings designed to conform to current design prescriptions, fail to meet the access needs of a significant proportion of the population. There is a lack of congruence between the designer's perception of need and actual need as expressed by disabled people. It is therefore obvious that there exists a failure to communicate the fundamental needs into functional designs, due essentially to a lack of awareness and responsiveness by designers.

Lack of design awareness may be a reflection of deficiencies in the education of designers. This study shows that of the 38 Schools of Architecture in the U.K., only eight have course documentation which specifically refer to the access requirements of disabled people. Overall, the approach adopted is piecemeal, inconsistent and largely discretionary. Until such time that the syllabus content within architectural education incorporates universal design as a requirement, there will remain a lack of real understanding of the concept, with a continuing functional failure of public buildings in particular.

A study of the access awareness final year (diploma) students suggests a very low appreciation of the needs of disabled people by these senior students, all of whom have experience in practice. Whilst a relatively simple and very short exposure of students to a controlled learning situation did significantly increase their level of awareness, the theme of user accommodation should be supported not only by specialist projects but by a philosophy permeated through every course in the curriculum. However, further research is required to determine the longer term impact and explore further educational methods by which this objective may be achieved.

The results highlight the urgent need for building design education to address and satisfy in design terms the changing expectations of a more vociferous public and stringent body of legislation. Just as it became incumbent upon design schools to adopt a 'greener' more energy conscious approach within the curriculum so it is now with 'universal design'.


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