Insight is invaluable. In measuring the quality and effectiveness of any products or services, you will generally get a more complete picture by consulting the people who use them.
That’s why we have user groups, focus groups and customer feedback surveys. It’s also why, in trying to create a more inclusive world, we have access groups. Established properly, their input is not only affordable – it can protect you from incurring a big pay-out in the longer term, whether from alterations, compensation or both.
Access groups will usually be set up to serve communities, but in the widest sense. They can operate in big, populous buildings, such as event venues, corporate headquarters or the offices of public bodies and local authorities. They may also be tasked with monitoring and informing the development of towns and cities. These examples reflect our first-hand experience, and are not exhaustive.
The details of the roles of access groups will vary depending on the nature of the place and the community in which they operate, and each group should have terms of reference to set out clear parameters. Those terms will usually also state the make-up of the group.
At About Access we are members of three access groups which are particularly significant and influential. One works with a local authority in a major city in the UK, one with a national role in transport infrastructure, and the other a key partner of the management of a nationally-renowned leisure, entertainment and retail complex.
Each group broadly carries out similar tasks, providing advice or acting as a sounding board for the place or the organisation. The membership of each group also comprises a majority of disabled people or carers.
The access group which works with a local authority is recognised by its peers as an important stakeholder, and one which should be consulted whenever work begins on developing a local plan.
The group may also be approached to give comments and feedback on the design of a new building. In addition, it works independently of the local authority to review planning applications which are considered likely to be significant to large groups of people.
We also provide comments, as members of the public, around planning issues. These are generally concerned with the exterior of a building and its use. Any issues around the internal fit-out of a property are a matter for Building Control, and the public do not necessarily get the chance to submit their input. But some local authorities will work more closely with access groups than others and will take on board comments even if they are not obliged to do so.
A large organisation, such as a transport operator or the venue with which we work, can use access groups as a critical friend. Such a partnership is very important because it provides a safe environment for the exchange of constructive feedback on any projects which are being planned.
But the onus is not just on the authority, organisation or venue to show flexibility and innovation in planning their developments. There is also an opportunity for the access groups to push the boundaries of accessibility beyond what is generally recognised and accepted as the norm.
One venue has created an accessibility kit that includes spares for some of the things that disabled people might need, such as hearing aid batteries, battery chargers for wheelchairs, tools for use in making limited repairs to wheelchairs, incontinence pads, weighted vests for people with autism. There’s no legal requirement for these but they have been introduced as a result of the greater awareness which comes from working with access groups.
By having an access group, you don’t just find out how to compensate for the things that some people cannot do. Access groups and their members will often come back with a lot of different ideas to take into account what disabled people can do. You might have something in your building which you think can’t be used by disabled people, but an access group might surprise you.