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Beyond the Garden Path – An Introduction to Access and Inclusion for People of all Abilities

Volume 3 Number 1 - April 2006

Marcus Ormerod and Jane McCleave





Against a backdrop of demographic changes and increasing levels of awareness and expectations, an inclusive approach to environment design is advocated to help botanic gardens provide access, learning and enjoyment to everyone.  Inclusive design is a way of designing environments so that they are useable and appealing to everyone regardless of age, ability, or circumstance.  There are many benefits in adopting this approach.

The access audit is used to identify and record existing barriers to access, and takes a journey approach from pre-visit information through the full visit to departure.  Barriers identified can be removed by changing practices, providing auxiliary aids, or making physical changes to the environment.  It is important to involve users during this process.

Plants and flowers can offer sensory, beneficial and pleasurable experiences to many people and, therefore, botanic gardens are well placed to be able to create a fully inclusive environment offering equality of experience for all.

Introduction – the Need for an Inclusive Approach

Demographic changes combined with increasing levels of awareness and expectations have led to a significant growth in legislation aimed at tackling discrimination and enabling access, for example the UK Disability Discrimination Acts 1995 and 2005, and the U.S. Americans with Disabilities Act 1990.   In Britain there are 8.5 million disabled people which equates to one in seven of the population. Worldwide this figure stands at over one billion. By 2020, half the adult population of the UK will be over 50 years old, while 20% of the inhabitants of the United States and 25% of those of Japan will be over 65. 

Legislation differs from country to country and it is beyond the possible scope of this article to review current legislation across the world. However, it is clearly important that all botanic gardens identify and comply with any relevant legislation in their country in order to meet minimum standards.

However, whether or not legislation exists, many will be keen to achieve 'best practice', and the authors advocate an inclusive approach to environment design which will help botanic gardens to consider and value people's diversity, remove unnecessary barriers, and work towards equality of experience for all staff and visitors.

An inclusive approach 

Inclusive design is a way of designing products and environments so that they are useable and appealing to everyone regardless of age, ability ,or circumstance (Ormerod & Newton, 2005).

An inclusive environment will be:

  • Easily used by as many people as possible without undue effort, special treatment, or separation
  • Able to offer people the freedom to choose how they access and use it, and allow them to participate equally in all activities it may host
  • Able to embrace diversity and difference
  • Safe
  •  Legible and predictable
  • Of high quality.              
    (Disability Rights Commission, 2003)

Historically, disabled people have often felt patronised or dehumanised and experienced segregation rather than inclusion. The separate sensory garden, designed specifically for visually impaired visitors, is a common example of segregation (English Heritage, 2005). An inclusive approach might map out a sensory trail drawing on areas throughout the site to be enjoyed by all visitors.

There are many benefits in taking an inclusive approach, including: increased numbers of visitors; better quality of experience for everyone, greater staff satisfaction through improved service delivery, greater diversity of visitors and staff, effective use of resources in getting accessibility right first time, and the promotion of a positive image regarding disability and inclusion issues.

How to achieve an inclusive environment - an inclusive design strategy should consider:

  1. Internal spaces (including both the public and employee areas of buildings)
  2.  External spaces (including all areas of the gardens and transport methods)
  3. Non-physical aspects (communication and consultation)

(Ormerod & Newton, 2005)

Inclusive design is not a fixed set of design criteria; but a constantly evolving philosophy (DRC, 2003). It is best championed at the most senior level in the organisation by being part of the organisation’s mission statement, so that an inclusive approach becomes an integral part of the organisation’s culture. 

The Access Audit

An access audit is a tool used to identify and record existing barriers to access. Fewer than 5% of disabled people in the UK are wheelchair users, and it is a common mistake to focus an audit predominantly on wheelchair users’ physical needs. Rather, the audit should consider the barriers experienced by the broad range of users including physical, sensory, and intellectual barriers for everyone including older people, disabled people, carers and families with young children.

Barriers to a botanic garden site might include:


  • Lack of staff or volunteers to support sites
  • Negative or uninformed staff attitudes


  • Lack of parking and accessible transport to, or around, the site
  • Lack of accessible signage, information, education and interpretation materials
  • Narrow paths and entrances, loose or uneven path surfaces, steep slopes and long distances
  • Lack of seating and shelter
  • Lack of accessible toilets, baby feeding, and baby/adult changing facilities


  • Complex information
  • Text-only information


  •  Limited options to touch, smell and hear plants
  • Visitors not aware of sensory highlights
  • Absence of visual and tactile warnings

Social and cultural: 

  • Publicity does not promote inclusivity
  • Inaccessible website


  • Cost of travelling to and from a site 
  • Entrance fees 
    (adapted from English Heritage, 2005)

Of those listed above, the new auditor is often less familiar with intellectual and sensory barriers.  Intellectual barriers can exclude many people such as those with dyslexia, a mental impairment ,or limited literacy skills. Easy-to-read information supported by clear illustrations can help many people. People with a sight or hearing impairment will often not have a fully inclusive experience when visiting a botanic garden.  Volunteer or audio guides and the thoughtful positioning of heavily-scented and tactile plants close to the path (or building a path near existing mature trees and plants of sensory interest) will enrich the experience of visually-impaired visitors.  Safety is always a priority and tactile warnings can help enormously.  For example, tactile paving to indicate a road crossing point will help visually-impaired people arrive safely at the garden entrance.  Providing a qualified sign language interpreter to accompany the garden guide for some scheduled tours will make the garden more inclusive for deaf visitors, and portable induction loops, the size of a clipboard, are now available and are beneficial for people who use hearing aids.

The access audit process should begin with clarification of the objectives and boundaries for the audit.  A journey approach, examining all aspects relating to the environment from pre-visit access information, through the full visit experience, to the departure, provides a useful framework for ensuring that all aspects are included.

A comprehensive audit should investigate:

  • External approaches to the site, including public transport and car parking
  • Entrance and reception areas
  • Horizontal circulation – e.g. do gates open freely?  Is there room to circulate?
  • Vertical circulation – e.g. how are slopes and changes in level dealt with?
  • Toilets
  • Auxiliary aids such as display systems and interactive exhibits
  •  Information provision and signs
  • Lighting
  • Acoustics in any indoor spaces
  • Emergency exits and fire alarms
  •  Policies and procedures
  • Management and staff attitudes and training

All facilities provided and services offered should be examined taking into account both visitor and staff experiences. It is often not possible to follow the journey through sequentially.  For example, it is better to audit the café at a meal time when people are using it.

It is good practice when identifying barriers during an audit to start considering possible solutions for achieving inclusion at the same time while on site. For example, at the main entrance one of the objectives may be to make it accessible. The audit might identify a raised step and narrow gateway as physical barriers because they present a trip hazard, prevent entry for wheelchair users, and make entry for parents with prams or pushchairs more difficult. A possible solution is to make physical adjustments to remove the step and enlarge the gateway so that the ground is level and the gate is wide enough to allow easy passage, whilst not becoming too heavy to open.

Removing barriers

It is important to consider other possibilities as alternatives or supplements to physical adjustments when exploring how best to remove a barrier.  In many cases a simple low-cost solution can be found. The UK Disability Rights Commission (DRC) identifies ‘reasonable adjustments’ as falling into one of three main areas:

  1. Change practices, policies and procedures
  2. Provide auxiliary aids and services
  3. Overcome a physical feature by removing the feature, or altering it, or avoiding it, or providing services by alternative methods.
     (DRC, 2002)

Some examples relevant to botanic gardens in each area could include:

  1. Policies and procedures:
    Develop an access strategy and appoint an access champion.
    Put in place disability awareness training for staff and volunteers.
    Offer reduced entrance fees for visitors and their companions where appropriate.
  2. Auxiliary aids:
    Make wheelchairs and self-drive mobility buggies available near the entrance for visitors to borrow.
    Install hearing loops at the information desk
  3.  Physical:
    Provide ramps as an alternative to steps.
    Repair uneven path surfaces.
    Provide clear signage to help visitors to navigate the site.

The only set of regulatory standards in the UK that address accessible design is the Building Regulations Approved Document Part M – Access to and Use of Buildings (Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, 2004). These standards provide some useful guidance helpful for botanic gardens, especially relating to specific areas such as car parking, ramps, gradients and toilet facilities. Other useful sources of best practice are listed at the end of this article.

User involvement and consultation

An inclusive approach involves as many different users as possible in identifying barriers and ways of overcoming them.  Methods of consultation can include inclusive consultation meetings, site visits and surveys. It is important to try to involve a wide range of people early on in the process.

Many users, such as those with impairments, will have a great deal of experience and knowledge to bring to the process as they are likely to have experienced similar barriers elsewhere.  Also, it is worthwhile contacting people who do not currently come to the site to find out why this is the case.  Users, including carers, will also be able to suggest ways of enhancing provision, for example, including horticultural therapy sessions could expand a botanic garden’s education programmme to a wider audience.

Conclusion - the Inclusive Experience

It is worth reiterating that creating a fully inclusive environment goes beyond physical access requirements with the aim of enabling equality of experience for everyone.

Plants and flowers can offer some of the most sensory, beneficial, and pleasurable experiences available to many people. Through inclusive design botanic gardens are in the unique position of being able to harness their wealth of rich plant resources to create a powerful and fully inclusive environment, achieving their aims while offering true equality of experience for all.

Useful websites (UK based)

For more useful information on access – please see the resources section


Disability Rights Commission, 2002. Code of Practice: Rights of Access, Goods, Facilities, Services and Premises. Disability Rights Commission, U.K.  Accessed 13 March 2006.

Disability Rights Commission, 2003. Creating an Inclusive Environment, Disability Rights Commission, U.K.  Accessed 13 March 2006.

Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, 2004. Building Regulations Approved Document Part M – Access to and Use of Buildings, Stationery Office, U.K. Accessed 13 March 2006.
Ormerod, M. & Newton, R., 2005. Inclusive Design Best Practice Note, English Partnerships, U.K. Accessed 13 March 2006.

English Heritage, 2005. Easy Access to Historic Landscapes, English Heritage, U.K. Accessed 13 March 2006.


Sur fond de changements démographiques et de renforcement des prises de consciences et des attentes, une approche complète de l’étude de l’environnement est préconisée, pour aider les Jardins Botaniques à proposer l’accès, l’apprentissage et le plaisir pour tous.

L’étude complète est une méthode (permettant de profiler des environnements de manière pratique et attractive pour tous, en dépit de l’âge des visiteurs, de leurs capacités ou des circonstances. Cette approche génère de nombreux avantages.

Un audit de l’accès est réalisé pour identifier et relever les difficultés existantes  concernant les systèmes d’accès, en adoptant une approche du parcours  depuis la pré-visite, à la visite proprement dite et au moment du départ. Les obstacles identifiés peuvent être éliminés en changeant certaines pratiques, en introduisant des aides auxiliaires ou en modifiant physiquement l’environnement. Il est important d’impliquer et d’intégrer les utilisateurs durant ce processus.

Les plantes et les fleurs peuvent apporter des expériences plaisantes, enrichissantes et sensorielles à nombre de visiteurs. Par conséquent les Jardins Botaniques sont bien placés pour créer un environnement complet, permettant à tous de vivre une expérience sur le même pied d’égalité.


Contrario a tendencias de cambios demográficos e incremento en los niveles de conciencia y expectativas, una aproximación del diseño integral ambiental esta dedicado a ayudar a proporcionar en el jardin botánico acceso, aprendizaje y entretenimiento para todos. Diseño integral es una forma de diseñar ambientes de manera que estos sean útiles y atractivos, independientemente de la edad, habilidad o circunstancia, y hay muchos beneficios cuando este enfoque se adopta.
La asistencia auditada es utilizada para identificar y registrar barreras existentes, para accesar y tener una idea de la jornada a partir de la informacion pre-visita, durante la visita completa y la salida. Las barreras identificadas pueden ser removidas cambiando las prácticas, proporcionando ayuda adicional o haciendo cambios fisicos al ambiente en particular. Es importante involucrar a los usuarios durante este proceso.

Las plantas y flores pueden ofrecer experiencias sensoriales, benéficas y placenteras para mucha gente y por lo tanto los jardines botánicos estan bien posicionados para crear un ambiente totalmente integrado al ambiente, ofreciendo una experiencia equitativa para todos.

About the Author

Marcus Ormerod, Director and Jane McCleave, Research Associate.
SURFACE Inclusive Design Research Centre
School of Construction and Property Management
The University of Salford
4th Floor Maxwell Building
Salford M5 4WT