On May 31, practising interior designers, academics and students in related professions gathered at Radisson Blu Hotel in Upper Hill for the first ever interior design conference in Kenya. The event, organised by the Interior Design Association of Kenya (IDAK), was held under the theme “Design for Diversity: Inclusive design as a catalyst for change”.
One of the things that stood out during the day-long discussion was the need to build structures that can be used comfortably by everyone, including those with disabilities, without having to make special adjustments to accommodate them, since this makes them feel stigmatised.
Dr David ole Sankok, a nominated member of Parliament and one of the keynote speakers for the day, was full of praise for Radisson Blu Hotel for making the premises easy to manoeuvre and friendly to people with disabilities.
“I have travelled around the world in my capacity as a representative for people with disability. I want to convey my gratitude to the owners of this hotel through your chairperson. This hotel is among the most accessible in East and Central Africa as it is equipped with state-of-the-art facilities for people with disabilities. The lifts have audio devices for our brothers and sisters who can’t hear and braille for those who can’t see. This is the most disability-compliant hotel I have been to so far,” Dr Sankok said in his address.
However, the irony seemed lost on him. Had Dr Sankok visited the toilets meant for people with disabilities, the people he represents in Parliament, he would have noticed a number of design flaws in the facility that would have probably made him withhold his sentiments.
TAKEN CARE OF
Right outside the conference room where he was giving his address, there was no mistaking the toilet meant for people with disabilities as it had the international symbol of a wheelchair, a sign used on toilet doors to indicate an accessible toilet. The washroom stood in the middle of two other washrooms that were clearly labelled according to on gender.
But you might want to cut Dr Sankok some slack. A quick glance at the three facilities would give one the illusion that everyone’s needs are well taken care of here, but there is certainly more than meets the eye. A review of the accessible toilet by DN2 revealed that the so-called accessible toilet might not be that accessible after all.
To begin with, the hardwood door opens outwards. It is heavy and, therefore, requires a lot of energy to open, something that’s likely to give someone on a wheelchair a hard time. This is unlike the glass door at the main entrance to the hotel that is sensor-controlled and opens as soon as the sensors detect someone approaching.
More worrying, the moment you release the door, it swings back almost immediately and does not provide enough time for someone using a wheelchair to get inside. This process is aided by a spring-loaded door closer and makes the door potentially dangerous to the toilet user.
Mr George Karani, an interior designer who doubles up as the IDAK president, told DN2 that such a door makes the toilet user dependent since they need someone to hold the door open for them. To compound the problem, the door’s handle is pretty high above the ground, meaning it could be out of reach for someone on a wheelchair.
But the problem does not end there. While the sensor-controlled lighting system immediately illuminates the room the moment the user steps inside, the hand wash basin is too high for someone in a wheelchair.
Interestingly, the hand wash basins in the male toilets are more user-friendly compared to what you will get in the accessible toilet. In the male toilet for instance, sensors detect the user’s hands when they are placed below the taps and immediately release water.
In the accessible toilet, however, the tap is not only manual, but is at furthest end of the sink, and would require a disabled person to stretch his or her hands far to turn the tap on or off; chances that he or she might even not reach the tap.
One of the recommendation given when designing an accessible toilet is that wall mirrors should to be as close to the ground so that even a person on a wheelchair can comfortably use one. At most facilities, mirrors tend to be placed very high, such that short people or those using wheelchairs cannot use them.
Further, there is only one of these facilities and it is not clear whether both men and women are supposed to share the accessible toilet.
While there are a few positive things about the accessible toilet, such as its spaciousness, non-slip floor tiles and a lower toilet complete with hand rails, this facility in a high-end five-star hotel is probably the reason the discussion happening on the opposite room could not have happened at a better place.
There are slightly more than 1.3 million Kenyans living with disabilities, and even though a handful of buildings have been adjusted to accommodate their needs, most still remain a nightmare for them.
For interior designers, going forward, property developers should adopt a design-for-all approach, also known as inclusive design, where houses are built with features that make them easily accessible to everybody.
“Inclusive design just doesn’t focus on the person with a disability; it looks at it as a design challenge and an opportunity to accommodate the person and by so doing, you accommodate everyone else.
So, for example, if you create a ramp at the entrance of a building, not only will the person using a wheelchair find it accessible, but the delivery man with a trolley or mother with a cramp, and a myriad other people will find the same feature useful. That is what inclusive design attempts to do – to increase the base of the people covered and included with one design solution,” says Prof Mugendi M’Rithaa
To put it simply, inclusive design, also referred to as universal design, tries to simplify life for everyone. Some of the things to consider while building a house that everyone can use independently are a ramp, an audio-enabled lift, has braille and is spacious enough to accommodate say, someone on a wheel chair. Other items include doors, installations such as door handles, switches, cooking slabs, kitchen sinks, kitchen cabinets, taps, as well as colour combinations in the house, lighting, space within the house among other things.
Commenting on the state of the accessible toilet at the hotel, Mr Karani said there was no need to build a separate toilet for the disabled.
“They just needed to adjust the designs for both the men’s and women’s toilets to make them usable by all people, regardless of physical ability.
For instance, they should have lowered the hand-wash basins so that even someone on a wheelchair can access it. the sensor feature is fine for everyone. With the special toilet next door done away with, that would create more space to expand the two washrooms and make them spacious and easy to manoeuvre about. The other thing would be to fit a couple of toilets with hand rails and either lower or raise them.”
While most would feel that there is a need to have special toilets for people with disabilities, there is now a popular belief across the world that disability is only present if the person is excluded or put at a disadvantage by society in some way.
Dr Sankok knows this all too well: “It is actually the environment that makes us disabled. With a ramp and a lift from the parking lot, I don’t need your help, I will be able to wheel myself to any destination I wish.”
According to Mr Jackson Ndegwa, the chief executive office of Design Forty, an interior design company based in Nairobi, some of the challenges the country is facing with regard to inclusive design are disregard of expert advice by property developers, who bypass some of the recommendations made by architects and interior designers in order to cut cost. He adds that ignorance by some officers in government agencies that approve building designs prior to construction further compound the problem.
“Some of these officers do not understand that certain requirements such as having a breastfeeding area for mothers are critical. Further, the buck stops with interior designers who should ensure that contractors fully implement their house designs,” says
Mr Ndegwa, urging IDAK to ensure its members comply with inclusive design standards.
Acknowledging that cutting cost is one of the factors dogging mainstreaming of inclusive design, Mr Ndegwa urges the government to provide tax cuts so as to encourage more developers to adopt the practice. “It is expensive because it is like you are deviating from the norm and providing for something that the client sometimes considers unnecessary. I know there are countries where all the cost that you use to provide for that is soaked up in tax returns and they have achieved results. We could also go this way,” offers Mr Ndegwa.
For developers who would wish to have their building certified as green buildings, it appears, such building would have to be designed for all. Ms Elizabeth Wangeci says, “As regards inclusivity, for us at Green Buildings Society of Kenya, we don’t even discuss it because it should be inherent in the design: how can you certify a green building that half the population can’t use?”
With the country grappling with an influx of physically disabled people who pose as beggars on major streets, Mr Karani says the roadmap to inclusive design that would help break barriers that in ways impoverish this group has already been laid.
He says some of the things they will be pushing for are goodwill from government and the political class, policy formulation, inclusion by design, which simply calls for designers to include everyone in the design as well as collaborations among various players in the industry and learning institutions.
“Have you ever realised that most disabled people are either beggars or cobras at their doorsteps?” asked Mr Karani, saying, “It’s not that they can’t do more, they can and they need opportunities. These opportunities can only come if the environment is enabling.”
An ideal enabling environment, he says, would be one that allows one to get out of their home safely, access the bus stop with ease and use public means, access their work station and go about their activities undeterred and at the end of the day go home without difficulties.
What the law says
The Constitution of Kenya, under the Bill of Right, guarantees people with disabilities, among other things, reasonable access to all places.
It is not the only document that guarantees this right however.
The Persons with Disabilities Act of 2002, which was passed in December 2009, is the other. In addition, Article 9 of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disability covers the right to accessibility and having been ratified by Kenya in 2008, it is now part of the law that govern their rights.