Hanging out – or Hung out to dry?
‘Hang-out stairs’ as they are commonly referred to, are becoming the ‘go to’ design feature by architects and building owners looking to develop a unique and ‘cool’ place for people to hang out: at universities and colleges, at theatres and art galleries, in city parks and urban infill.
They are thought of as being inclusive – everyone is welcome to hang out, take a break, meet up with friends or colleagues. There is just one big problem – these hangout stairs are not accessible to a whole range of people with disabilities.
It is most obviously exclusionary for people who use a wheelchair, walker, cane or crutches. However, it is also exclusionary for people who are blind or have low vision, as navigating stairs with no colour contrasting edging or tactile walking surface indicators (TWSI) – tactile attention indicators (TAI), is hazardous at best, and even more dangerous when the stair risers are at an angle. The space is loud for persons who are hard of hearing, and is visually distracting for people on the autism spectrum or who have a cognitive disability (think star athlete with a concussion, a person with OCD, PTSD, etc.)
For architects, designers, municipalities and building owners who believe that putting an accessible seating space at the front along the bottom of the hangout steps meets their code obligations, you are wrong. Codes require that tiered seating requires a choice of seating locations for everyone, including persons with disabilities.
If you think that weaving a ramp through the middle of the hang-out stairs is inclusive, the reality is, it just means that users of assistive devices such as wheelchairs, scooters and walkers have to navigate through the people who are sitting on the stairs handing their legs into the space intended for the ramp clear width. Not to mention – sometimes it’s impossible to find the ramp, because who would ever think to look in the middle of the stairs for the ramp. Stairs (with or without a ramp zig-zagging through it) are not a place to hang out – stairs are intended as a means of navigating between horizontal surfaces at different heights.
Such designs are a creative way of trying to achieve code compliance, but sadly - the outcome doesn’t meet the intent.
Building Codes and Standards provide minimum standards with respect to specific design features, including accessibility.
Human rights legislation, (certainly across Canada, as well as in many other countries around the world), explicitly prohibits discrimination on the ground of disability.
Courts have ruled that simply achieving code compliance is not sufficient to prevent a human rights complaint from being brought against designers, architects, building owners, cities, etc..
Just because historically people have stopped to sit on the steps – to take a quick break – does not mean we should be encouraging ‘Hang-out Stairs’ as a type of discriminatory design feature.
** Author’s note: the photos included in the article are for illustrative purposes only and are not meant to single out specific designers or facilities, but rather, to highlight the design feature and associated issues.
About Marnie Peters
Marnie Peters has 20+ years of experience as a consultant offering comprehensive services related to accessibility and universal design. Her firm, Accessibility Simplified provides professional services to architects, engineers, designers and planners to ensure buildings and urban environments comply with all building codes, accessibility standards and human rights legislation.
Marnie has extensive experience across a full range of large commercial and institutional projects, addressing: the public realm, built facilities for commercial/retail, sporting venues, transportation facilities, convention centres, office, education, health care and residential and active transportation and cycling facilities. Marnie has extensive experience working as part of large, multi-disciplinary teams, while addressing the diverse needs of end users.