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Isn’t it time that architecture was for everyone?

Blog | By Annabel Sampson | Sep 29, 2017

Words have been drained from our lexicon that might be deemed offensive; the blind are ‘people with visual impairments’ and the able-bodied are the ‘non-disabled’. And yet, with all this effort to be more 'inclusive' in our language, where is this reflected in our environment? A lot of the time disabled toilets are locked up or ‘out of use’. Disabled spaces at larger hotels look more hospital than honeymoon suite, and the patch that’s cordoned off for wheelchairs at the cinema truly is the worst seat in the house.

Twelve years ago, Robin Sheppard, the chairman of Bespoke Hotels – a chain of 170 around the world – was diagnosed with Guillain-Barré syndrome. It’s a rare condition that causes the immune system to turn on itself, causing progressive muscle weakness that, in some cases, can lead to complete disenablement. To be struck down and thrown into disability so suddenly heightened Sheppard's awareness. In a recent interview with the Daily Telegraph, Sheppard, now a ‘sector champion’ for disability issues, explained, ‘I have been on the inside of disability. Getting back to a life where I can look forward to going to a restaurant, or any sort of outing, took a long time. Your confidence is stuck in the lost and found tray, you are ashamed of your mobility skills, and you don’t want to embarrass the people with you.’ Today, he has recovered, but still walks with a stick.

The second Bespoke Access Awards were announced last Tuesday. An eclectic group of specialists have come together to judge the competition, including the Paralympic gold medallist, Baroness Grey-Thompson, architect Alan Stanton, winner of the 2012 RIBA Stirling Prize for Architecture, and the Design Council Chief Executive, Sarah Weir. They are seeking fresh thinking and innovation in architecture, design and services. ‘The human body can be reimagined through architecture,’ said RIBA’s outgoing president, Jane Duncan, sparkly-eyed. ‘This competition is exactly the spur that my profession needs.’ It’s a fairly enticing spur as well. The competition kitty is £30,000 – a healthy ten grand up on the year before.

Architects – notorious detail obsessives – tend to be caught up with glamorous minutiae; the perforated, rusted-steel overhang, the tactility of the ceramic banister and the softness of cork edging around the sink. The challenge is to re-focus that compulsion, to ensure that disabled access rooms aren’t compromised on design. Jane Duncan explained, ‘Glasses conceal a disability, but they are fashionable and normal. I want a similar approach to architecture – to make it normal to create for everyone.’

‘Forty-seven per cent of hotel guests answered "no" when asked if they would be happy to relocate to the disabled room,’ said Sheppard, with a sigh. It’s considered a demotion, what with the handrails in the shower and the plethora of gadgets dangling from the walls. It’s a 'practicality first, style second' approach. Sheppard aspires to turn this statistic on its head, and hopes that, with the success of this year’s entries, in a few years’ time hotel guests will be requesting to ‘upgrade’ to the fully accessible suite. I've got my fingers-crossed.

ANNABEL SAMPSON, @annabel_sampson

Find more information, including how to register and enter here.