Towards general accessibility of the built environment for persons with limited mobility

In: "Report of the Fourth International Expert Seminar on Building Non-Handicapping Environments: Access Legislation and Design Solutions Budapest, Hungary, September 2-4, 1991" (PDF, 480 KB). Internet publication URL: In Internet publication URLs: and

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Report of the CIB Expert Seminar on Building Non-Handicapping Environments, Budapest 1991


Towards general accessibility of the built environment for persons with limited mobility

Alain Armeni, Ministry of Housing, France

French experience with respect to the integration of disabled individuals in the built environment has made progress in recent years. The requests of disabled individuals have indeed developed to a considerable degree within the last decade, which makes it necessary to take their problems into increasing consideration.

The first step was taken in 1966 when a policy was adopted to adapt a percentage, albeit a rather small one, of housing in certain housing construction projects for use by disabled persons. The accessibility of outdoor space was not given much attention at that time and affected only the area immediately adjacent to housing.

The difficulties of this policy, and notably the impossibility of balancing supply and demand, led the French Government in 1974 to adopt new measures tending to generalize the accessibility of the buildings and the housing units they contained. In reality, it was chiefly the outside accessibility of all the buildings for multi-family housing that was generalized at that time, because the measures concerning the interior of the dwellings were not very satisfactory for wheelchair users (for example, the sole obligation was to have inside doors with a width of 70 cm).

In 1975, the associations of disabled persons obtained an extension of this policy by the passage of a law which provides:

"The architectural arrangements and fixtures of housing accommodations and buildings open to the public, notably school facilities, university and training buildings, must be planned in such a way as to make them accessible to persons with disabilities".

(Law of Orientation in Favor of Disabled Persons, June 30, 1975)

Since 1978, in application of this law, all public buildings that are new or substantially rebuilt, as well as all new roads and streets and those undergoing major repairs are required to be made accessible. Moreover, work will have to be gradually carried out to make the existing buildings and previously constructed road system accessible. The scheduling of this work will have to be made public by the individual owners and local governments responsible.

The technical measures that have been adopted are intended to permit a large degree of autonomy to individuals with limited mobility, particularly those who use wheelchairs without aid. In new installations, facilities that are provided at the time of construction cost very little. A certain margin of toleration has be allowed in old installations, and projects must be examined with regard to technical possibilities within the limit of reasonable costs.

It is a matter that will take a long time. A service in the Ministry of Urban Development and Housing is devoted to taking accessibility into consideration in urban development as a factor for the improvement of the quality of the built environment for everyone.

In 1980 improvements were made in the measures covering accessibility in housing. There again, the measures were aimed at giving people with limited mobility the greatest possible autonomy and, as in the case of public buildings, contribute to an improvement in the quality of housing for everyone. That is why it seemed advisable to generalize them. The regulations now in force include measures applying to the actual access to all new apartment buildings, minimum requirements for all the housing units they contain, and more extensive requirements applying to all housing units accessible to people using wheelchairs.

The first of these are fairly standard. They involve the provision of access by ramp or, preferably, level entrances; corridors and doors of sufficient width outside and inside the buildings as well as inside all the dwelling units. An elevator is obligatory when there are 4 or more floors above the ground floor and, if there is no elevator, the stairways must be sufficiently easy to use for elderly persons and those who walk with canes, for example, and they must be accessible to people being carried in a chair.

According to law, all housing units located on the ground floor as well as those on an upper floor to which an elevator gives access must be accessible to persons with disabilities. All such housing units must have a living area that is easy for a person using a wheelchair to use (kitchen, living room, at least one bedroom, toilet and bath). However, this facility may be anticipated without actually being furnished at the time of construction. In this case, the architect will have to prove that the transformation necessary to permit a person using a wheelchair to use this unit can easily be made by work that touches neither the structure nor the exterior of the dwelling unit and does not alter its form, especially by decreasing the number of rooms.

This rule, called "housing adaptability", seeks to leave the architect a certain degree of freedom of design. It is obviously desirable that the modifications which people in wheelchairs are forced to make should be reduced as much as possible. If the housing accommodations built in France at the present time do not regress, most architects will provide living facilities that correspond to the needs of individuals using wheelchairs at the time of construction, because these facilities are of the same nature as those now being widely sought (a somewhat larger kitchen, a bedroom of at least equal dimensions, etc.). The average additional cost required for adaptable housing is relatively small ranging from 0.5 to 1 per cent.

In the sector of private homes and old housing units there is no legal obligation to make them accessible at the present time. Recommendations have been made, accompanied by a certain number of financial aids to serve as encouragement. Thus from the housing unit to the street and to public buildings, the entire environment can be made accessible. A considerable backlog has accumulated but it is hoped that building accessibly will eventually become routine rather than forced by law.

Technical measures are shown in the appendices which are available from the author.


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