Reasonable adjustments and historic buildings: requirements and best practice

Those running historic buildings and heritage sites no doubt wish for the widest possible cross-section of the general public to visit and enjoy their properties. However, with the government reporting that 14 million people in the UK have some sort of disability this is more than just an aspiration.The Equality Act 2010 imposes a legal duty on employers and service providers (and many historic properties will be both) to make ‘reasonable adjustments’ to ensure that people with disabilities are not disadvantaged when visiting a property. Failure to do so may result in a discrimination claim being brought against your organisation.The duty to make adjustments has three parts:1. Changing the way things are done (e.g. in churches, permitting members to receive communion in the nave rather than at the altar);2. Making changes to the built environment (such as providing disabled access to a building);3. Providing auxiliary aids and/or services (for instance, providing special computer hardware for a partially sighted employee)What standards to I have to follow to comply with the duty?There are a number of guidelines and other legal materials that help explain what the duty requires.The Equality and Human Rights Commission publishes Codes of Practice setting out the requirements of the Act in both the employment and service provision context.On building access, Approved Document M, issued under the Building Regulations 2010 gives guidance and sets out minimum standards. Note that the need to conserve historic buildings is recognised. The aim is to improve accessibility where practically possible, but not so as to damage a building or prejudice its character. Where it is not possible to meet the guidance, an Access Statement may be used to explain why deviation is necessary.The duty exists alongside the planning system and historic buildings will still possess the protection granted through the listed building regime (which also becomes an obstacle to be negotiated when implementing plans to make permanent reasonable adjustments). Some Christian denominations, including the Church of England and the Roman Catholic Church, have their own consent procedures and so are exempt from the need to obtain listed building consent.How do I work out what adjustments are ‘reasonable’?Planning is crucial in anticipating the requirements of people with disabilities. Asking customers with disabilities for their views and consulting with local and national disability groups may assist you in assessing what adjustments need to be made.Given the irreplaceable nature of our historic buildings and the limited resources of organisations that care for them, undertaking a thorough review to assess what adjustments are reasonable is advisable, particularly where disabled access is concerned. Historic England has set out a thorough multi-stage process that enables organisations to balance available resources with the needs of visitors with disabilities as well as the conservation requirements of the site.Practical examples: Reconciling best practice with sensitive locationsDifficult decisions will often have to be made in and around heritage sites, but a balance between reasonable adjustments and conservation concerns can be found with creative thinking and careful planning. Ultimately, the required work may be expensive, but although cost may be taken into account in considering what is ‘reasonable’, it is not an overriding concern and the best course is usually to go beyond what might be considered the ‘bare minimum’.• Floors: These should be free of trip hazards and smooth enough for easy wheelchair use. However, levelling of a historic floor should be a last resort. Fragile surfaces may need to be protected against foot traffic and wheelchair use. Loose rugs that are not anchored to the floor should be avoided.• Ramps: Permanent ramps, carefully designed to respect the historic integrity of the surroundings are usually preferable. However, portable ramps may be acceptable, particularly in smaller properties and temporary ramps may be used whilst a more permanent solution is devised.• Stairs: Not every staircase requires a lift, though a number of venerable institutions, including St. Albans Cathedral and Lambeth Palace have done so in a successful manner (see Historic England’s guidance for further examples). According to current standards, handrails should be installed on both sides of existing flights of stairs to assist people with disabilities who are capable of using them. Where this is not possible (e.g. long, spiral staircases) other creative solutions, such as a virtual tour, could be considered.• Provision of information: signage and information boards should be placed at a height accessible to wheelchair users. Information should also be made available in alternative formats such as braille or in large text format for the visually impaired, or by means of an audio guide.• Landscapes and gardens: various measures can be considered that would improve outdoor spaces. Level routes may be incorporated into uneven surfaces (such as paving slabs set into a cobbled path). Self-binding gravel can also be used to provide a firmer service. Where some areas remain physically inaccessible, interpretation panels or multimedia devices can provide an alternative means of access.Bear in mind that the aim of the Equality Act is to provide, so far as is reasonably practicable, the same level of access for people with disabilities as that enjoyed by the rest of the public. Whilst historical buildings often pose a greater challenge than most, the obligation remains. But along with it exists the opportunity to broaden the appeal of our heritage sites to reach the widest possible audience.