Human Abilities and Design

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The following piece of text is an extract from European Ref: CEN/CENELEC Guide 6 ‘Guidelines for standards developers to address the needs of older persons and persons with disabilities’.

It states that: Physical, sensory and mental abilities vary from person to person and for individuals as they get older. Diversity is normal. Designers need to be aware of difference across the range of human abilities, and of associated design considerations.

(a) Physical abilities 

This includes walking, balance, handling, pulling, pushing, lifting and reaching. Many activities involve simultaneous use of more than one of these skills. Physical strength and stamina may also affect people’s abilities to perform these actions. 


For some people walking on the level or up gradients is difficult. Some people may have a limited walking range, may have difficulty with turning movements or may use mobility devices such as crutches or a walker. They may need to stop frequently, to regain strength or catch breath. Design considerations include provision of handrails, seats at regular intervals, convenient set-down parking and adequate time for slower pedestrians at road crossings. Designers should also consider the needs of people walking and engaging in sign language when designing access to and from buildings plus within the buildings themselves.


Balance limitations can affect someone’s gait or control of hand movements. Design considerations include handrails, regular seating, and providing controls within easy reach. A surface against which a person may stumble against or walk into should be designed to limit abrasion. 


A significant minority of people are left-handed. Some people may have restricted use or no use of one or both hands, or may have limits on strength or precision. Facilities and components should be designed to be suitable for use with either hand or with one hand only. Handling includes gripping, grasping and manipulation. Each of these has a different purpose with specific design considerations. For instance, components should be designed to be easily held. The circumference of the supporting structure and stability are critical. Manipulation involves the moving, turning and twisting of components with a hand or hands. For those who have limited manipulation abilities, size and shape and ease of movement are critical. Another option to consider is to design for manipulation by using a pushing, pulling or pressing action using a clenched fist, or by using the wrist or the elbow. 

Strength and endurance

Strength and endurance may be required on sloping paths and floors, stairways and long travel distances, when sustained effort may be needed.

For those with limited endurance, frequent resting-places are essential.

People generally find it easier to push a component, than to pull it. This is particularly so if the individual uses a wheelchair. Self-closing devices on manual doors can be difficult for some people to operate, particularly if the doors are required to resist wind forces. For these reasons, doors that open and close automatically are preferred.


Activities such as opening a vertically sliding sash window and an upward opening access gate, should be designed to be easily operated with minimal force. 


Design has a role to play in ensuring that key components in a building or environment are in easy reach, bearing in mind the range of people’s sizes and abilities. Having components within easy reach is particularly important for those with more severe limitations in mobility. The reach range is dependant on the height and arm length of the person, use of the arms, and the balance and mobility of the upper body. A ‘comfortable reach range’ has been defined as one that is appropriate to an activity that is likely to be frequent and in need of precise execution and that does not involve stretching or bending from the waist. Putting things within comfortable reach can ensure use by a greater number of people. An ‘extended reach range’ has been defined as one that is appropriate to an activity that is likely, neither to need precision nor to be frequent and that can involve stretching or bending from the waist.

(b) Sensory abilities 


Some conditions affect the capacity for or quality of speech. Two-way communication can be facilitated by environments designed to minimise barriers to hearing low or indistinct speech. 


People differ in their capacity to hear sound, to determine its direction, its source, to discern pitch, frequency, volume and variation and to separate out different sounds. Hearing quality is important for communication, for information, and for detection of hazards such as traffic. Many people with hearing difficulties use a hearing aid which amplifies all sounds caught by the microphone, making communications very difficult in noisy environments. Keeping background noise level low is essential. The selection of structural and surface materials can make a substantial difference in audibility. Auditoriums, meeting rooms and reception areas can benefit from additional sound enhancement such as a loop system. The careful design of illumination can assist in communication such as lip reading and sign language. Provision of visual information and visual alarm systems can communicate information to those who have hearing difficulties or who cannot hear. Designers should also consider the colour and size of rooms and even the furnishing arrangement as this is very important for visually based communication. Also the use of vibration as means of sensing others should be considered.


Vision allows an individual to be aware of the luminance of surfaces, objects, form, size and colour. For people who are blind or who have visual difficulties, the provision of suitable tactile walking surface indicators and tactile or acoustic warnings at hazardous locations, should provide information on using the built environment and should limit the risk of injury. The built environment can be designed for orientation by providing sound cues and tactile cues. An easily discernible system of ‘way finding’ should also be considered. For people with limited, but low vision, effective visual contrast between surfaces or objects helps to identify critical locations. Warning markings on glass surfaces, and markings on the edges of stair treads, help minimise hazards. 

Differences in friction between one floor surface, or one stair tread surface, and the next should be avoided. Therefore, adjacent surfaces that display different standards of slip-resistance, or that depend on raised surfaces, should be carefully considered 


In selecting surfaces in the built environment that people will need to touch (such as handrails, handles, knobs and controls, tactile information), it is important to select materials that avoid distress, injury or allergies. Surfaces should be free of abrasions. Metals that may cause adverse reactions when touched should be avoided.

(c) Mental abilities 

Mental abilities include cognition, intellect, interpretation, learning and memory. People differ in their knowledge, their capacity to understand, reason, or interpret information. Designing for differences in these capacities helps provide a usable environment for the population at large, from the very young to the old, and people of diverse abilities. Means of communication in the environment should be designed to be immediately and easily understood, and correctly interpreted. As people age, some experience loss of memory or find it increasingly difficult to absorb new information, so changes in the environment should be carefully considered before implementation. 

Design considerations that take account of mental abilities

Aural and visual messages should be simple, clear and have immediate impact. Figures, symbols and simple words are likely to be the most effective. Symbols should be instantly recognisable as representing images seen and activities undertaken in everyday life.

Way finding should be simple, such as tactile, graphic, audible or architectural cues that are easy to follow. Signage should be large and clear. Way-finding maps should be clear, indicate the person’s whereabouts in the building or facility, and be free from extraneous information. 

(d) Age and size 

Accommodating the developing child

It is important to create environments that are safe, accessible and useable for children. Individual components should be safe and useable as age-appropriate. Learning to manage risk is an essential part of a child’s development. 

Accommodating ageing adults

Life span within the human population is increasing. More and more we expect to maintain an economic and social life within both the public and private domains as we age. However, many human faculties are in decline as we age, such as mobility, dexterity, stamina, strength, hearing, sight, or memory. Familiarity with a particular environment is important. 

Diversity of size

The population contains a diversity of sizes and heights, from children, to the diversity in the height of fully-grown adults. The positioning of components and the heights of building elements such as steps should recognise the diversity of height. Increased weight and girth is now also a feature of the population. 


References / source

CEN/CENELEC Guide 6 ‘Guidelines for standards developers to address the needs of older persons & persons with disabilities’. 

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