Legislation: Strategy or final solution?

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


Legislation: Strategy or final solution?

Bastian Treffers, Dutch Council of the Disabled/ICTA, Netherlands

It is the 22nd of July and I am enjoying my holidays camping in one of the largest countries of Europe with an old civilization and a rich history - France. My family and I like camping. We are traveling in a folding caravan made in Denmark. It is a very convenient camper for me as a wheelchair-user. As there are few accessible sanitary facilities in France, we carry a portable toilet with us. In an effort to learn French, I buy a regional newspaper every morning. In a small article I notice that the French government decided that all public buildings should be accessible for people with disabilities. Another measure, taken by the Council of Ministers, is to reinforce the role of organizations of people with disabilities to achieve this target.

In 1987 the European Community requested the Dutch Council of the Disabled to organize a European Conference in the Netherlands with the aim to formulate guidelines in the field of accessibility. I think this request was probably inspired by the fact that there was quite a lot of Dutch experience with the promotion of accessibility. The conference concluded with some very important recommendations and resolutions accepted and, as a follow-up, the Netherlands as a memberstate of EC was mandated to work up the results of the conference. They did not find deaf man's ears. Three years later, after intensive studies, expert workshops, deliberations, etc., the European Manual for an Accessible Built Environment was published and presented at the International Conference on Technology and Accessibility in Hoensbroek. Close cooperation of the Dutch Government, non-governmental organizations, and experts in the field of architecture resulted in a very valuable handbook. Like recent French legislation, we find ourselves at the beginning of a difficult way. Drafting ideas is something more than implementation or realization.

It is strange that the French government implemented legislation on accessibility of public buildings and decided to strengthen the role of the organizations of people with disabilities. Apparently, they have no confidence in their own measures, and they are right, though other countries are also guilty of this. Without control in a broad sense the simple act of legislating will not work. That is our experience in the Netherlands.

Since the 1960s, when organizations of people with disabilities started their activities, the promotion of accessibility was one of their most important targets. The first results were micro-solutions based on goodwill. Individual buildings were adapted with both public and private financial sources. Two events were of importance:

  • the introduction of the International Symbol of Access (ISA),
  • the pioneer work of some organizations, resulting in the first edition of a sort of Manual on Accessibility, in 1973. Almost 20 years later the 10th edition is published, thicker and as complete as can be.

In the Netherlands, two different trends are to be observed concerning the promotion of accessibility:

  • the decentralized network of disabled and non-disabled experts with the task to examine the reachability, the accessibility and the usability for the award of the International Symbol of Access; and
  • the efforts to integrate disability issues in general building legislation.

The first activity, based on criteria from our Dutch Manual, ('Geboden Toegang', related to those of Rehabilitation International), resulted in diminishing the number of inaccessible (historical) buildings. In October 1990, for instance, the Dutch Council of the Disabled awarded the 5000th International Symbol of Access to the famous Concertgebouw in Amsterdam which celebrated its centennial jubilee.

The second activity, a policy directed towards legislation needs more explanation. The Netherlands is a developed country with old democratic traditions. Government, Parliament, NGOs, they all exist and function and what has to be elected is elected. In 1978 an Interministerial Steering Group on Rehabilitation was rebaptised as an Interministerial Steering Group on Disability Policy (I.S.G.). Ministries represented were Education, Welfare, Health and Culture, Housing and Town planning, Traffic and Transport, and Social Affairs and Employment. The Dutch Council of the Disabled participated as a NGO observer. The House of Parliament formed a parliamentary commission covering this field. Two years later the I.S.G. installed a commission on accessibility issues, the CCPT, in which the Dutch Council of the Disabled got four advisory seats. Within this body a very fruitful cooperation began between government and the Dutch Council as a NGO.

Among other things, we agreed that it is better not to be a legislative island for two reasons: Dutch people with disabilities traveling in the European Community (EC) generally experienced more barriers than in their home country. On the other hand, an internationalization of (prefab)standards, of buildings and architecture, was observed together with unification and harmonization in the European Community. These observations stimulated us to plead for some European (EC) initiative which found response in Brussels and resulted in the Conference on Accessibility in 1987 in Utrecht (NL). In my opinion the realization of legislation measures must be part of the strategy towards accessibility for all and not the final solution. One cannot live in legislation. 


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