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Creating spaces for everybody

Rob Kitchin argues that geography has ignored the needs of disabled people and suggests ways to overcome its shortcomings

Geography - the natural and built environments that we inhabit, disables people. The fact that a wheelchair-user cannot enter a building because there are steps is a function of the steps, not the individual's medical condition.

That a visually impaired person has problems crossing the road at a pedestrian crossing which has no noise signal is a function of the traffic signalling, not the individual's impairment.

Geography as a subject has long contributed to creating disabling environments by largely ignoring the plight of disabled people trying to move about our towns and cities and by failing to provide an awareness of access issues when training the next generation of professionals charged with designing our urban environments.

It is time to tackle the shortcomings of geography and geographers.

Bringing disability issues into the classroom dovetails with recent legislative initiatives and alterations in the geography curriculum. The Disability Discrimination Act (1995) and Part M of the Building Regulations (2000; and subsequent amendments) both recognise the various ways in which geography disables and both pieces of legislation work to counteract its effects.

They do this by highlighting the ways in which disabled people are excluded from social and built environments and by making such exclusions illegal and subject to penalties.

By exploring disability issues through class exercises and fieldwork, geography teachers can introduce their students to a range of topical, geographical issues such as planning, urban design, citizenship, and social exclusion, and enhance the development of geographical skills such as mapping and surveying.

The following activities provide some initial exercises that will introduce students to disability issues and can be used to stimulate discussion on how geography disables and what can be done to create a more inclusive society.

Useful websites Disability Discrimination Act (1995):

Office of the Deputy Prime Minister (sets out the 2004 guidelines for the implementation of Part M)


Rob Kitchin is director of the National Institute for Regional and Spatial Analysis, National University of Ireland and author of Disability, Space and Society, published by the Geographical Association


Undertaking an access audit

The best way to determine the accessibility of an environment for disabled people is to undertake an access audit. This consists of a detailed survey of an area to determine what features of the built and natural environment might hinder a disabled person from accessing and using a space. Its main focus is movement: the getting to and from an area, getting around in an area, including the inside of buildings, and being able to leave an area if there is an emergency. The audit should include information suitable to all disabled people, not just wheelchair users. It can be undertaken either using a checklist or by plotting symbols onto a map (see Producing an access map).

Getting to an area: transport

Are train stations and bus stops, and so on well signposted?

* Is transport infrastructure accessible - can people access stations and bus stops?

* Are the modes of transport - trains, buses, and taxis - accessible? Can disabled people get on and off?

* Are there designated car spaces for disabled people that are close to the building?

* Are there accessible paths from car parks to buildings?

Getting between and into buildings

Are the pavements even and smooth?

* Are there designated places to cross the road that are accessible (eg dropped kerbs)?

* Do the crossings provide enough time for people to cross safely?

* Are there user-friendly paths for people with sensory impairments (eg tactile paving)?

* Are steps even in tread and width and their edges highlighted?

* Are obstacles (eg bollardsstreet furniture) highlighted by colour contrast and tactile surfaces.

* If needed, are there both steps and a ramp into a building?

* Are handrails provided on both sides of stepsramp?

* Can the doorbell, ATM, post box, phone, etc. be reached by everybody?

* Are the doors a sufficient width to allow wheelchair access?

The inside of buildings

Is there adequate signage?

* Is there a lift to other floors?

* Are the walls suitably colour contrasted?

* Are there publicly accessible toilets?

Producing an access map

Using the information you have collected, create an accessibility map. An access map helps disabled people plan their trips by highlighting where they might run into difficulty and it tells planners what changes need to be made to the environment.

Step 1 Obtain a detailed map of your local area. 1:1250 scale maps from the Ordnance Survey are ideal.

Step 2 Devise a set of symbols to denote different access issues (eg rough and smooth surfaces; gradients; parking and crossing sign).

Step 3 Place the symbols on to the map Be careful to include details about the three parts of access: getting there, getting between the buildings, and moving about inside the buildings. Make sure that:

* you have provided a reference and a title (eg Accessibility Map of Metro Centre Shopping Centre);

* you display the map at an appropriate size so that visual interpretation is easy and text readable;

* the map is uncluttered and contains the necessary information at an appropriate scale;

* you have included a legend, scale and North arrow.

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