Accessing disabled needs

By Robin Tuffley, marketing manager at Clos-o-Mat, supplier of toilet solutions for disabled and elderly people

By 2030, one in three people in the UK will be aged over 55. Already, some 11 million people are registered disabled, and the figure increases each year. People want to age in their own homes as independently as possible, for as long as they are able. Currently, only 6 per cent of older people live in specialist accommodation. This percentage is unlikely to change much, since of 230,000 new households created every year, over 55 per cent of them will be headed by older people. The onus is on housebuilders and developers to accommodate that sector’s needs and aspirations.

The social model of disability is all about removing barriers, enabling disabled people to be independent, with choice and control over their own lives. And research shows giving people the appropriate environment and aids alleviates or eliminates their need for care support….

Currently, only 12 per cent of properties meet the four key features of accessibility – level access, flush threshold, wide doors and circulations areas and use of a toilet on the ground or entry floor.

Statistics show 25 per cent of households with a disabled person need a home adaptation. Bathrooms are the most common form of home adaptation, with 20 per cent of disabled people in private households undertakeing them.

Yet a little thought at the D&B stage, that would cost little, could eliminate many of those home adaptations, and could have a huge impact on the long-term viability of the home for an elderly or disabled person.

When design professionals such as architects or interior designers incorporate disabled people’s needs into projects there can be a tendency to reduce disability to a singular form of mobility impairment, that of a wheelchair user.

We can often become fixated with the physical environment and forget about other aspects that contribute to making a home inclusive.

The first consideration is, if the user is in a wheelchair, can they actually access the rooms? Are doorways wide enough? Is there room to turn? Is the access level? We tend to fixate on level access with regard to showers, but all entry and doorways need to be as smooth as possible.

Sensory features of colour and texture play an important role in design, throughout the property. Not only does it make things more aesthetic, it also can offer visual and tactile guidance for those with impaired vision.

Shiny/glossy tiles can reflect light and often cause glare so it is worth considering whether matt effect tiles are more appropriate. The use of contrasting colour on the floor and walls can help to distinguish areas and promote independence. With some types of flooring, different colours can be bonded together to define different areas. Products with tactile features such as raised bumps, dimples or touch sensitive controls are also available to assist with the use of equipment such as shower controls, wash hand basins and or toilets.

In the bathroom, whereas we traditionally include a bath, most adaptations involve that being removed and changed to a level access shower; in a first floor or above flat, that poses drainage issues. So why not design the property from the outset to be a wetroom? And make the shower flex longer than usual, so someone using a shower chair can still clean themselves. Replacement of a bath with a shower delivers more useable space within the bathroom, facilitating manoeuvrability if the primary user is in a wheelchair.

In an ideal world, an automatic shower (wash/dry) toilet in place of a conventional WC meets everyone’s needs, being suitable for able and less able members of the family. And when you consider we go to the loo on average eight times a day, it is a fixture that is much overlooked in its worth and role in our day-to-day life. If the occupant needs a carer to help them, the financial and psychological cost of providing that care support is significant, and its elimination can be a useful sales tool to homeowner or social housing provider… in those terms, a wash/dry toilet would pay for itself in less than four months. Even if a conventional WC is chosen, siting it to enable wheelchair transfer from left and right is one of those small details that makes a big difference to the eventual occupant.

On washbasins, lever taps are more user-friendly, and again, in the overall build costs, are an insignificant add-on cost to the developer but a change that makes a huge difference to the potential buyer.

So designing and building for our elderly and disabled is not such an issue, and one that could, if done tastefully, appeal to the mainstream, meaning only one set of designs need be produced.

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