Disabled access standards in the past were not as well enforced or widespread as they are today and accessing historic buildings can be a serious issue for disabled people. People with disabilities who live in older towns and cities, such as in Europe and the UK, can find themselves struggling to access some of the public heritage buildings and homes in their town.
Many disabled people have found themselves dismayed upon wanting to visit a historic building, only to find a steep flight of stairs leading up to a narrow entrance door. This style of elevated entrance has been a long standing tradition within Western Architecture, but it is completely inaccessible to most disabled people. Unfortunately, many business owners don’t really realise that their building design excludes a lot of people. They might think that they don’t need to worry about accessibility, since they don’t have any disabled customers. However, this is a self-fulfilling prophesy and they are not aware of the potential visitors that they are missing out on.
Opening Up the Doors to Everyone
When it comes to altering historic buildings, there are a lot of restrictions already in place due to conservation laws. There are guidelines as to what types of alterations can be done to a building that has historical significance. However, this doesn’t mean that there is nothing that we can do to improve access to these historic structures without ruining the beauty of their architecture.
It is easy to design a brand new building with considerations for disabled access, but what about the rest of the buildings that we have used for many years and will continue to use far into the future? How can we make these older structures more accessible to disabled people? We don’t want to simply tear down the old buildings and replace them with new ones, as this would result in a significant loss of beautiful and historically significant architecture. The challenge is to incorporate accessibility seamlessly into our historic buildings so that they can be visited by all.
The first step to this is an access audit, which is when a disability expert examines the property and identifies any areas where improvements can be made, while still retaining the original charm of the property.
Common Issues with Older Buildings
What are some of the most common reasons why disabled people have trouble accessing older buildings? Here are a few of the flaws that come up most often:
Lack of Parking near the Entrance
People with disabilities want to have parking access that is close to the entrance of the building. However, in the days before cars many buildings were not designed with this in mind. There might not even be a parking lot next to a historic building, making it difficult and time consuming for the disabled person to even reach the building in the first place.
Narrow and Thick Front Doors
Many old buildings will have very narrow front doors that are made of heavy wood. The thickness of the doors makes them difficult for someone to open and their narrow width makes it almost impossible to fit a wheelchair or a walker through.
Many old buildings will have much narrower corridors than modern buildings, which makes it very difficult for someone using a wheelchair to turn around within them. This can be very inconvenient, especially within a long corridor.
According to the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, any disabled person should have the opportunity to engage in the historic environment. This is why it is important to consider incorporating disabled access into historic homes, museums, castles, manors and other heritage buildings so that everyone within the community can be able to learn about the past.
Aki Hashimoto is a freelance writer and blogger who is interested in issues affected disabled people, such as access audits, adaptations to historic buildings and more.