The Importance of Measurements for Those with Disabilities

Jul 26th, 2019

You might be surprised to learn just how many uses there are for anthropometric data. This article will focus on the design of workspaces, architectural living spaces and anthropometry’s key role in supporting those with disabilities.

The US Access Board, an independent federal agency that promotes equality for people with disabilities, creates building standards in support of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).  The Access Board asked Anthrotech to help in updating the information used to develop their building standards, and we were glad to assist. 

Getting Started

We started the project the same way we always do – with a lot of research to determine what information already exists on the topic at hand and how we can take it to the next level. Turns out there was not much to find in this circumstance.  

 We found a few laboratory studies with a handful of participants, but those weren’t strong enough to base a standard on.  And we found several studies focused on particular disabilities like spinal cord injuries, for example.  But we didn’t find all-purpose general studies that provided many different dimensions on a large group of people with diverse disabilities.

This raised the question – why is there such a hole in the available data?  After all, there are lots of anthropometric data sets for military populations and quite a few for civilian adults.  Some of those are re-sampled every few years!  There are even anthropometric data sets for children. 

We determined the challenge is the variability. 


From disease states to genetic differences – there are a number of different conditions that might cause someone to use a wheelchair.  These conditions can have a wide range of effects on body size and shape, as well as function. 

One important dimension for architectural design is forward arm reach, and the related overhead fingertip reach.  Certainly, a person who has loss of mobility in the legs would still have arm reach capability in the typical range.  But, when that person is sitting in a wheelchair, the starting point of the arm reach – the shoulder – is much closer to the floor than if a person were standing. 

This means that the effective overhead arm reach, measured from the floor, is going to be considerably shorter for someone sitting in a wheelchair.  That’s crucial information when you’re determining where to place a light switch or a handle for a bathroom sink.  When you then consider that some conditions also limit mobility of the arm, the range of effective arm length will become even more varied.

That variability is an important factor in determining the sample size of a broad-based general anthropometric survey of people with disabilities.  With huge variability comes a huge sample size, and that can equate to a lot of dollar signs. 

Wrapping it Up

At the conclusion of our work for the Access Board, we recommended a strategy for developing a comprehensive database of anthropometric data for their target population. 

But naturally such an enterprise would be costly, and the Access Board is a very small agency, with an even smaller budget.  The need is still there, though. 

Wheeled mobility users are becoming more common, and with the wide implementation of the ADA, more and more people with disabilities are entering the workforce.  This means the usefulness of a comprehensive anthropometric data set will become imperative.

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