Presentation of the "European Manual for an Accessible Built Environment

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


Presentation of the "European Manual for an Accessible Built Environment"

Roy van Hek, ISG/CCPT, Netherlands

I am Secretary General of the Coordinating Committee for the Promotion of Accessibility, a government agency. This organization provides a platform for all institutes, organizations and other bodies in the Netherlands working in the field of accessibility. The members of the committee are representatives of the majority of the ministries and the umbrella organizations of disabled people. The committee is financed by the Dutch government.

Today I am presenting the first draft of the European Manual for an accessible built environment, and the launch of an initiative which we hope will go on for some considerable time before the final manual is produced. The manual was presented during the International Conference on Technology and Accessibility which was held in the Netherlands in November 1990. It is only one of the tools to achieve a society for all. The question is whether the European Manual can be the basis for an accessible built environment for all.

In May 1985 the Bureau for Action in Favour of Disabled People, which was part of the European Commission, asked the Dutch Council of the Handicapped to carry out a study which would take stock of the accessibility of public buildings in the EC member states. It described the situation, both in memberstates legislation and in practice, similarities and differences between the twelve countries.

One of the recommendations was that a greater degree of consensus, and a common approach, should be achieved within the EC on the universal aspects of access. A prime requirement for making sure that access is fostered in a systematic and purposeful way is to have an agreed policy, formulated on the same lines in all member states, which can be achieved if it is put into practice.

The basis for this is to develop a European Access handbook. First, however, there has to be much consultation in Europe before there can be any talk of standardizing minimum dimensions and establishing needs and wants. The problem of choosing between a bottom line, or a progressive upper limit, for certain critical measurements can be dealt with by establishing a margin which is bigger than the smallest measurements and yet smaller than, or the same size as the largest. In this way, no country is confronted with impossible problems in changing all its standards and no country has to call into question standards that other countries have already agreed. We hope that in this way standardization will gradually become a fact. Then, if somebody talks about access, we know we speak about the same level of access.

This 1985 study had the status of a discussion paper and was the main document at an EC seminar "Access to Public Buildings and Facilities", also organized by the Dutch Council of the Disabled in Utrecht in 1987. The principal recommendation from this conference was that it was necessary to draw up a European document on access based on the existing rules and existing research in the various memberstates. This could provide a significant impetus for the standardization or harmonization of the rules and regulations on access. This statement was followed by the observation that: "the period of issuing recommendations is over. It is now time to draw up binding regulations". It was after this seminar that the EC applied to my committee for realizing the recommendations put forward at Utrecht. There will be many more discussions and consultations before we reach this point. Every time, the same question came up: "do we need new legislation on access or do we have to change the attitudes of architects and developers?"

We came to the conclusion that new attitudes towards accessibility are needed. Since conditions for accessibility are created on the drawing board, the planning discipline has to be considered as well. Therefore we recognized two important questions:

  • Who is responsible for accessibility in the built environment?
  • What has happened to the idea of accessibility?

The kind of provision that an architect will make depends on the architect's concept of the user of the built environment. Over the centuries architects and builders have tended to think in terms of an "average building user", who is usually assumed to be a man in the prime of life. However, in reality, there is no such thing as an average building user, and therefore this cannot be the basis for plans. By using the wrong starting points, the architect loses sight of the basic objective. Can they be blamed for this? The answer has to be yes! It is not the "averages" but the "differences" between people and their needs that are self-evident; once those are considered, the need for accessibility for everyone becomes self-evident as well.

This integral planning or macro approach on the basis of the extended scope is the central principle of the European Manual, which can be seen as a first manifesto for integral accessibility.

"Integral accessibility" means planning and constructing the built environment in such a way that everybody can use it as independently and naturally as possible. Three terms were central to this definition: everybody; independently; and naturally. These terms have an emotional significance, and their definition cannot therefore be used as a strict standard; they require sympathy with the concept of integral accessibility. Architects must rethink their own discipline radically, whether or not they accept the challenge depends not only upon their attitude but upon publicity and the planning process, tools and legislation. The European manual is such a tool, and is therefore needed. Current national manuals on accessibility are not always adequate and do not seem to reach or be used by architects. To be fair, the many handbooks on the theme of designing exclusively for disabled persons have missed the point of integral access or "macro world"; no one builds environments just for disabled people. However, these books, written from years of experience, have made an enormous contribution to the increase in consciousness regarding accessibility and are indispensable sources of information. Without them, there would have been no European Manual. But all of us who worked on the manual have been working on a new approach: that access should be normal integrated quality for all, a society designed for all citizens, without any discrimination.

The first edition of the manual, issued in November 1990 is the beginning of a process of change. This manual did not offer ready-made solutions. It is also the beginning of a discussion using the same definitions. So this edition will be carefully checked and corrected by all current readers. We have a product now and we have to renew it in cooperation with the readers and the organizations of disabled persons.

The Manual has been divided into Parts A and B. Part A outlines basic considerations and lays out dimensional principles; in other words the starting points for access, while Part B examines the consequence of these design principles. It focuses on facilities for accessibility in public transport, the outdoor environment, the indoor layout, specific areas such as WCs and interior designs and lists a number of considerations and recommendations. The layout of the manual is such that a reader can trace both the existing environment and the new one by taking an imaginary walk through the building or facility. Drawings can be adapted accordingly.

In part A, for example, there is a description of the activities in the built environment as part of the basic considerations. It is an imaginary journey where everybody can use public transport, approach buildings, move around in buildings, use specific areas and interior furnishings. Now it is possible to show all the barriers that may be encountered.

In part A some examples of dimensional principles are provided, in this case for moving around. Further on there is an explanation of the principle of "extended scope"; considering all the kinds of potential users of buildings and their needs rather than assuming that it is possible to design for an "average user".

Part B covers the same ground, specifying the considerations and recommendations for each part of the built environment. The following three pages of the manual show signs, circulation in buildings, and indoor layout.

This document is a "European document", but it could be the foundation for national documents on accessibility or the basis for training courses. We are now negotiating with other countries such as Spain, the Netherlands, Japan, Austria, Hungary and the Soviet Union for making a national manual based on the European Manual. Part A, the starting point for accessibility, would be the same in every translated edition. Part B can give solutions and examples depending on the national standards and national legislation, cultural background and so on.

In conclusion, my committee thinks we have a long way to go, but there are great opportunities ahead. There is a concept of a universal foundation for access ideas; there might be a role for positive publicity and the awareness that legislation is necessary. But good accessible plans do not come about because of enforced situations, and the integral macro aspect of accessibility cannot be captured by isolated pieces of legislation. Legislation should be a catalyst. Only if integral accessibility originates with the architect and all the decision makers and is automatically taken into consideration then the problem can be solved in the near future.


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