Sheep all standing together, looking the same way - not challenging the status quo.

+ Improving buildings’ accessibility means going beyond regulations and embracing innovative and universal design principles.

Education providers at all levels have a duty to provide access to learning for all students. In the UK, the design of an accessible environment is regulated by Building Regulations, British Standards, and other guidance documents. Such regulations provide a good basis, but meeting them often only represents reaching minimum standards. I believe designers need to go beyond these basic minimum requirements. 

The architect Selwyn Goldsmith, who pioneered accessibility issues in design in the 1960s, stated that “universal design means that the products which designers design are universally accommodating, that they cater for all their users.” So to achieve the goals of universal design, it’s important that designers don’t fall into business-as-usual thinking when it comes to designing truly inclusive and stimulating educational spaces.

In reality, best practice means going beyond basic regulatory requirements. Gallaudet University in Washington is a university for deaf and hard of hearing students, and is an example of where minimum standards have been exceeded and good practice has been applied. The University features wider, curved and well lit corridors – which allow people to walk side-by-side when using sign language to communicate. And its automated doors allow people to continue conversations without having to stop and turn away from each other.

Accessibility is often defined as design interventions that help disabled people. But, as the corridors at Gallaudet illustrate, universal design is good for all. The corridors, doors and lighting all help to encourage interaction, stimulate conversation and the sharing of ideas – which should surely be central ambitions for any education establishment. 

Innovation means continually challenging the status quo. Consider the example of lifts and building evacuations. The traditional standard has been to insist that lifts should not be used in emergencies. But by rethinking this issue, many buildings now have specialised evacuation lifts, which offer disabled people a faster, safer means of escape. So for designers, just meeting existing regulatory codes can mean inhibiting the innovative new ideas needed to push the accessibility and inclusion agenda forward.

Designers need to challenge the provisions that are currently made for disabled students, to develop and provide environments that nurture learning, communication and the wider aspirations of all students, regardless of their personal circumstances. 

What would you suggest to overcome the barriers to universal design?