It will happen to all of us ….

The decline in my senses was heralded in my Sixties when I found I needed glasses for reading and drawing.  A few years later I was diagnosed as having cataracts and my eyesight was improved by their removal; first one eye and then a year later the other one.  It's an amazingly delicate operation that only takes half an hour and next day you are gifted with new sight!   I was recently diagnosed as having glaucoma, but fortunately this can be kept at bay by daily eye drops.

Then ten years ago I discovered I'd totally lost my sense of smell.  I was sitting reading the Age with my back to the kitchen where I was stewing a saucepan of Granny Smith apples to go with my breakfast muesli. The apple burnt black and hard; Anna said she could smell it out in the street!   I'd quite forgotten there was something cooking, and it's even more difficult if you also can't smell or hear the reminder buzzer on the stove.  When it happened a second embarrassing time (a piece of toast caught fire) I not only couldn't smell it, I almost didn't hear the louder smoke alarm either, so I no longer leave things cooking without hovering close by.

It was in my Seventies that I also started to have difficulty with my hearing as above, and tests confirmed that my hearing was fading in line with my age.  So I acquired some amazing small hearing devices in my ears with tiny batteries that reconnect me to what is now for me a much too noisy world. 

The earpieces are very sensitive to wax in the ears and I became totally deaf for a day until the accumulated wax in my ears was washed out.  It was a salutary experience to find how isolating it was, and made me appreciate the major difficulties some of our fellow citizens have to cope with all their lives.
It felt strange to float along in a car without any traffic or car noise, and made me realise how fortunate I've been all my life.

Now in my mid Eighties it's got worse and amping up the hearing aids to enable me to hear people better has also increased the sound level in crowded public places and heavy traffic to the point that they are now often cacophonous to the point of discomfort, and perversely often also prevent me from hearing the person next to me. 

And more seriously, I have real difficulty in hearing and speaking on the telephone.  I also find it surprising how certain small noises I was once unaware of, like the rustling of a newspaper, or putting a knife on a plate have now become so magnified.  Music from CD's is distorted as though it's not quite on the right wavelength, and TV is much the same unless I sit quite close.  One of the few good aspects is that I'm much more aware of the bird noises outside my apartment than I was previously.

As a result I sense I'm retreating from the world because I simply don't catch what's being said half the time, and it's a pain having to ask people to repeat themselves. I withdrew from an architectural commission recently because I didn't think I could manage it with my impaired hearing.

All of these things are simply the consequences of old age and it's only now that I'm handicapped in various ways that I've been forced to think about the ways buildings should be improved for people with 'minor' disabilities like mine. 

Making provision in the design of buildings for really disabled people was pioneered in the Sixties by architect Selwyn Goldsmith in the UK (see his Designing for the Disabled (1963).  It was long overdue and a set of rules has even found its way into the Building Code of Australia.

In our politically correct society the words keep changing, and words like handicapped and disabled have largely gone out of fashion, especially that unfortunate neologism, a 'handicapped toilet'.  Rather than saying someone is deaf or blind, they are now more usually described as being hearing or vision impaired.  Generally I prefer to call a spade a spade and don't like euphemisms but if the people affected find these terms more acceptable then I accept them too.

The major emphasis of what one might call the 'disability lobby' has always been about making proper provision for people in wheelchairs.  All new buildings are now required to incorporate ramps, lifts and toilets to allow people confined in wheelchairs to be able to enter and use buildings as directly as everyone else.  There are rules about the grade and lengths of ramps and the entrance doors in trafficked buildings are always the automatic sliding type these days. 

And there are a myriad of other details to get right, like having lift buttons at the right height for wheelchair users and marking them in Braille as well as numbers for those who are sight impaired. 

Some architecture schools use a teaching device designed to ingrain in young designers the need to consider access for people in wheelchairs at the building design stage. Students are required to spend 24 hours in a wheelchair with no cheating! I'm told it's very effective, and they never forget it! 

Entrances for wheelchairs installed in older buildings can often only be incorporated separately at the rear or side because of the existing physical circumstances, but in new buildings equal access through the main entrance is the norm.  Commonsense doesn't always prevail however. I had an instance once where a new outer suburban community hall had a front entrance up half a flight of stairs above the footpath. The site was a sloping one and most people entered at the side of the building at the same level as the car park.  We assumed that people in wheel chairs would arrive by car like most other people so we made no special provision at the street level. However the Council insisted on a wheelchair ramp across the front of the building so wheelchair users wouldn't be made to feel like second class citizens by being unable to enter through the front entrance! Politicians are especially prone to this sort of political correctness, and this particular ramp was rarely used.

The platforms of the new tram stops being built in Melbourne have been designed at the same level as the doorstep of the new breed of trams, which is a great improvement for older people with shopping in both hands juggling a Myki card. 
But I'm surprised that the new trams don't yet include a wheelchair lift like those in most of the buses in New York.

The drama of grand flights of stairs up to the main entrances of buildings has always been of importance architecturally (think of the Paris Opera and the Sydney Opera House) but the need to incorporate ramps has changed all that.  Not only do ramps take up so much more space than steps, they take longer and most people would rather climb stairs than walk that much further up a ramp in order to gain the same rise in height.  As a result ramps only get used by people in wheel-chairs and are such a design complication (and cost) that designers now locate at least part of the ground floor office lobby with lifts at footpath level to avoid all this hassle; not so grand perhaps but more practical and certainly more economical. 

Studded rubber strips are now common wherever there are changes in direction like pedestrian crossings and on the edges of platforms to warn people who have impaired sight that they should take care. The button for crossing lights should be at the right height for wheelchairs and for those who can't see the green lights they now make a beeping noise to tell them when to leave the kerb.

And designers must remember that these concerns are not just about the people who are unfortunate enough to have a major disability. The simple fact is that all of us get impaired as we get older and most of us are now living longer.  I've described my own not uncommon saga and my advice is cold comfort; all you can do is make the best of it and get on with life.

I'll be 85 in a couple of months and I'm experiencing first hand just how much one's vision and hearing becomes slowly reduced with age.  Even active people become slower and less steady on their feet, and less quick to find and operate buttons and doors in a digital age.  Stairs are a problem and most old people like to hold onto handrails for steady confidence, although I find that they're not always in the right places. 

The need for external stairs and steps to be flatter and have deeper treads for both comfort and safety applies to everyone but particularly for older people, something that's not always appreciated by designers.  Scroll through Publications on my website and read an earlier piece called'Steps and Stairs'about this important point.

Considering the increasing percentage of people over Sixty in our society, it's surprising that none of these accessibility concerns have been consciously incorporated into all new domestic architecture yet.  Standard width doors and hallways in new apartments and houses should ideally be just a fraction wider, probably 10cms (4 inches) is enough to make access much easier for future wheelchair occupants, and at least one of those three and a half bathrooms in most new houses should be designed for wheelchair use. Improvements are easier to incorporate at the construction stage and are more difficult and more expensive later.  All it needs is the political will to make no changes in level and increased width of doorways mandatory in the building code for all new houses and apartments.

Bathrooms are where the majority of home accidents occur so it's not just the elderly or those with some greater impairment who are at risk!  All bathrooms should be fitted with grab rails in showers and over baths, and taps should be coloured red and blue to distinguish the hot tap from the cold one, to avoid scalding accidents and falls in misty showers. And the taps should be a solid colour not those dinky little coloured dots that people without their glasses can't see! 

All changes in level should be completely eliminated everywhere and door handles and light switches should be reach-able from wheelchairs.  And lever handles are easier for people with arthritis to operate than those with round handles.

Instead of a step at gutter crossing points on footpaths there is now normally a dished ramp for prams and wheelchairs. But a friend who is confined to a wheelchair after a car accident tells me that the dished footpath crossings in St Kilda that are attractively lined with irregular bluestone slabs are one of the hardest things he has to cope with.  Urban designers should take note that the details are all important; were they tested with a wheelchair before construction?

At the very least designers must appreciate that the senses of everyone will become slightly impaired as they get older and make intelligent provision in our buildings for all of us.  They'll be personally pleased they did when they are my age.

Don Gazzard LFAIA
mid May 2014