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Getting to grips with manual dexterity issues

Getting to grips with manual dexterity issues
10th June 2019 Ian Streets

The rise in arthritis and other conditions is highlighting the problems presented by many everyday objects for people who have poor manual dexterity.

There is plenty of advice online to help people make buying decisions and to guide them with small, practical adjustments they can make to help them when it comes to lifting, gripping, twisting and more. But when one of those tips is to put an elastic band on a doorknob, you realise that these things are better dealt with at the design stage. If someone has difficulty gripping a doorknob to turn it, they’re unlikely to have the dexterity required to secure an elastic band to it.

Most people will be aware that even wearing a pair of gloves can make it more difficult than usual to operate some switches and handles. Try it with boxing gloves and you’ll soon appreciate the benefits of levers, and of push buttons that aren’t flush.

Potential problems can be found everywhere, every day. Someone moving around their home will find it much easier to open and close doors which have a lever handle rather than a knob. Similarly, levers are better for taps than a twist top which has to be grasped. And they’re better for flushing the loo than the small buttons which are found on some types of WC, but which are now making way for larger panels that are easier to push.

A journey to work can present all sorts of problems, whatever the mode of travel. Increasingly, the buttons at pedestrian crossings are flush and difficult to operate with a hand rather than a single digit. Assistance dogs can be trained to activate a pad to open a door, but pedestrian crossing buttons are beyond them.

Travelling by bus or rail can create difficulties when it comes to using ticket machines, pressing buttons, inserting and retrieving payment cards and picking up the tickets. The same applies with ticket machines in car parks, feeding fiddly coins into small slots and then operating an awkward keypad to type in a vehicle registration number.

Working in an office, common issues include the location of such facilities as soap and towel dispensers in accessible loos, and kettles and plugs in a communal kitchen.

Most modern offices have lever handles on the doors but, in an age of refurbishment and modernisation, doorknobs can still be found. At the other end of that scale, some doors are operated by keypads, as is access to a car park.

Getting into a building can become increasingly complicated. Touch-screen pads used for staff and visitors to sign in should be designed with poor manual dexterity in mind.

Office equipment can create problems with using plugs and adaptors – are the sockets at an appropriate height? Phones, copiers, scanners and other gadgets should be suitable for use by people who have poor manual dexterity.

Out for lunch, what sort of difficulties await in the restaurant or café? The usual concerns about door handles and accessible loos all apply, along with a few more which are specific to the dining environment.

Does the restaurant offer easy-grip cutlery, and glasses and cups with large handles? How are the condiments presented? Paper sachets for salt, pepper and sugar can be tricky and the plastic versions so often used for sauces can be a nightmare even for people who don’t lave limited manual dexterity. Don’t get us started on the menace of those plastic milk pods!

The debate about plastic straws won’t have passed many people by. The move to ban them is welcome, but it must be remembered that straws are essential for some people with limited manual dexterity and other disabilities. With hot drinks paper straws collapse and metal straws transfer the heat. There are more options available now and it’s up to restaurants to give it some thought, in the interests of their customers and their businesses.

The range of products such as key turners, jar and bottle openers and seat belt handles, is evidence of a growing awareness of the needs – and the market – of people who have poor manual dexterity. Building designers should do more to get to grips with it.

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