Engineering for inclusion

Nathan Sealy, Regional Engineering Director for Rail Consulting South
16 August 2017
Up close image of a wheelchair user pushing their chair.
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Most people will have seen many accessibility improvement projects around their local area in recent years. In the rail industry, for example, the UK government Access for All programme was launched in 2006 to address the issues faced by disabled passengers using railway stations. The aim was to create obstacle-free, accessible routes to and between platforms at 150 priority stations, and has recently been extended through to 2019 to deliver improvements at a further 68 stations.

Many of us have been involved in the design and construction of similar accessibility improvement projects across many areas of society. Every single construction project in the country is now subject to a whole host of precise standards and requirements regarding accessibility for people with physical disabilities and other protected characteristics.

Accessibility as far as is “reasonably practicable”

With respect to decisions related to health and safety, it is a fundamental principle of engineering that we have an obligation to reduce risk as far as is reasonably practicable (also described as ensuring risks are As Low As Reasonably Practicable). This same essential principle was introduced by the Disability Discrimination Act 1995 with regards to accessibility. Replaced by the Equality Act 2010, this legislation requires a proactive approach from employers and service providers. All possible “reasonable adjustments” must be made to remove any barriers experienced by a disabled person when trying to access a service.

But is that enough?

All of the above could be argued as describing how to do “just enough”. And what about people who have a particular need that is not a “disability” or other protected characteristic? Industry is slowly starting to move towards this viewpoint. Indeed the relevant EU railway legislation uses the description “persons of reduced mobility”. This covers everyone from wheelchair and mobility scooter users, through to someone with a pushchair or heavy luggage, and simply anyone not as agile on their feet as others.

We must be put ourselves in the shoes of the end user

Our challenge as engineers is to stop focusing on the minimum requirements and to think about the end user; to think about the full diversity of the people who may be using the infrastructure or service that we are designing and engineering. Have we considered whether the signage is appropriate for those for whom English is not their first language? Have we thought about those who cannot see or hear in the same way as us? Have we thought about people who are particularly small or particularly tall? Have we stopped to think whether someone who is simply unfamiliar with the situation would understand what they need to do and when? These are questions we must be constantly asking ourselves.

The Construction (Design and Management) regulations insist that we look out for the health and safety of the person who will be building, operating, maintaining, and ultimately decommissioning anything we design. Every day we make design decisions that often make little or no difference to cost, but will ensure that things are easier (and safer) for our operational colleagues.

And our approach must be the same when taking the end user, or member of the public, into consideration as well.


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