The march of the lever... and the demise of the doorknob

The humble doorknob has never been the most effective method of opening or closing a door.

It foils soapy or greasy hands and it can’t be turned with an elbow if the hands are full. And while it does keep out clever animals that learn to push a more effective lever, it provides a much more serious problem for the elderly, infirm and disabled who have trouble gripping it.

It is for this last reason that the Canadian city of Vancouver has passed a law banning doorknobs on new buildings. Other cities in Canada, for example Pickering in Ontario, are considering following suit. And now there are calls for the doorknob to be similarly shut out of the UK.

“We need to look at why doorknobs are not suitable for disabled people,” says Alan Norton, chief executive of Assist UK, an organisation that provides products and equipment to people with disabilities.

“When you look at people with arthritis or those who have little movement of their hands, a lever is easier as you push down on it. However, automatic doors would be the better solution. I agree we should ban doorknobs in the UK.”

The British Standards Institution (BSI) regulates the design of buildings in the UK and ensures they meet the needs of disabled people. Approved Document M of the Building Regulations for England, which the BSI supports, does state that lever-action door handles should be used where possible.

The UK Design Council, amongst others, has also lobbied government for better design of new houses for those with disabilities.

The council is in favour of “inclusive design”, which means that the design of a building or equipment is made accessible to everyone.

“People should have the choice in their own home, but levers are most likely to make public space more accessible so may be the better choice.” Sue Bott, director of policy and development at Disability Rights UK, said.

Some elderly support groups, however, are not arguing for an all-out ban on doorknobs just yet. Others favour a redesign of the traditional circular knob. Simon Bottery, Independent Age director of policy, said: “We know that square or oval knobs are easier to grasp than round ones. We do need to equip homes properly so that people can remain independent as they age... so if developers really do want to get a handle on things, we say, don’t scrap doorknobs – just reshape them.”

It’s a niche area but in terms of ergonomics – the science of designing equipment that best suits the body’s physical and cognitive abilities – the case is clear that levers would be of benefit to the elderly and disabled.

Doorknobs do keep bears from wandering into Canadian homes – the animals have learned to push down levers. George Torrens, a senior lecturer in design at Loughborough University, said this is because “bears have a form of digits and can hook or press on handles, they can’t grip”.

He added: “But neither can people with severe arthritis or neuromuscular conditions which stop them using their muscles to move the digits. In order to provide security for the houses in Vancouver, they would need a button and lever action, to make the task more complex.”

Fortunately there’s no need to build this level of security into any British regulations. But adopting a Vancouver-style policy may be helpful to the UKs ageing population. In 30 years, it’s estimated that the number of Brits over 65 will be more than 20 million. What looks like nitpicky government overreach into a trivial area may be part of a strategy to make life a bit easier for all members of society.

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