Almost one in five people in the UK have some kind of long-term health problem or disability that limits their day-to-day activities to a certain degree. The most common types of impairment are mobility problems, with more than half of disabled people reporting this as their experience. Yet despite this and the fact that legislation requires those responsible for public sector buildings – especially social housing properties, where there is typically a high concentration of people with disabilities – to proactively ensure those premises are as accessible as they can reasonably be, disabled people still find themselves all too often facing barriers in the places where they may need to live or work.
The issue was highlighted by the House of Commons Women and Equalities Committee in its ‘Building for Equality: Disability and the Built Environment’ report published earlier this year that presented some alarming findings. Among the stories were reports of public buildings that did not feature fully accessible bathrooms – essentially stripping some people of one of the most very basic of human rights and needs.
Perhaps more worrying still is the fact that this could become an even larger problem, affecting yet more people in society as the prevalence of disability looks set to rise over the coming years. This is because the likelihood of disability increases with age and the population is ageing, with more people living longer but not necessarily in good health. Disabled people of state pension age are more likely than those of working age to report multiple impairments, and 70% experience mobility problems alongside other issues, such as hearing or sight loss. In addition, it is estimated that the number of older disabled people is likely to increase by about 40% between 2002 and 2022.
As a result, demand for mobility-friendly spaces is expected to surge considerably and it is vital that building managers act sooner rather than later to ensure that people of all ages and abilities can freely move around premises unhindered. Beyond promoting wellbeing and equality and ensuring social housing stock stays relevant, inclusive buildings can also cut the risk of accidents dramatically in rooms that are typically more hazardous than others. The bathroom is one such space and they require some thought to ensure they are both safe and accessible for people using mobility aids or wheelchairs.
In particular, it is important to explore how to best use the space available and adopt a ‘person-centric’ approach to design in order to remove all obstacles to this basic living need. There is no better place to start than at the door as level access, a flush threshold and a sufficiently wide doorway are all essential elements to guarantee entry to the bathroom, particularly for wheelchair users. Sometimes sliding or concertina doors are a better solution than a traditional hinged and hung option. Once inside, the installation of specially developed adaptations, fixtures and fittings can help to make the space inclusive for all. For example, the WC needs to be positioned with plenty of space around it to accommodate a wheelchair or mobility aid. It may also need to be raised slightly in height to help make it easy for the user to get on and off, and the soil pipe might need to be repositioned to prevent it from causing an obstruction.
Meanwhile, handbasins need to be positioned with enough room around them to allow mobility aids to manoeuvre about. Sometimes this calls for a particularly compact basin and wall-mounted designs are usually best. Equally, showering facilities will need careful planning to guarantee safety and accessibility. A traditional shower cubicle can almost always be written off as an option for wheelchair users as they are impossible to enter and present a high risk of trip accidents because of the raised threshold.
A safer alternative is a level-access wetroom that users can wheel in and out of with ease. These also make the best use of the space available in even the smallest of bathrooms, and give the room a contemporary and stylish appearance, turning on its head what people generally expect an accessible area to look like. As well as being easy to install with the use of high-quality wetroom formers, this solution can be designed to withstand heavy-duty use and high loads so that wheelchairs can safely be used in them without fear of damage.
The option of installing ‘bathroom for life’ products is also always worth considering in social housing to future-proof properties and meet the varying needs of different tenants. For instance, AKW offers a system that features a built-in wetroom former and adapter to make it possible to rapidly – usually in less than half a day – and simply transform a bathroom with a conventional bathtub to a wetroom. This concept of a flexible room means the bath can be removed or put back in place whenever needed according to the requirements of each tenant that enters the home.
By ensuring spaces are designed with all users in mind – including those that rely on mobility aids, the bathroom no longer needs to be daunting or even potentially dangerous for the frail, elderly and those with disabilities. Moreover, rooms that are created for easy navigation will also help promote independence for maximum dignity, wellbeing and superior quality of life for all regardless of age or ability, for a much fairer society.