Opportunities and challenges of barrier-free design consciousness - an evaluation of the application of barrier-free design principles in the socio-cultural circumstances in Ghana

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Report of the CIB Expert Seminar on Building Non-Handicapping Environments, Harare 1992


Dr. H. N. A. Wellington, Building & Road Research Institute and Dept. of Architecture, University of Science and Technology, Kumasi, Ghana





Owing to the traditional conception of the disabled as a person who has to be dependant, it had not been a common practice in the past for disabled people to be active users of public buildings and spaces. It had been presupposed that people with disabilities had to be taken care of by the family within the confines of the domestic space.

However, as a result of changes in governmental policies to address the need to train persons with disabilities to acquire skills and necessary vocations and professions for active participation in the socio-economic development process, there is an upsurge of the number of disabled persons who are leading active public lives, becoming part of the user-group utilizing public buildings for production, recreation, commerce, transportation, education etc.

Out of the experience of executing the design-task on the Jachie Sheltered Employment Center in Ashanti, Ghana, commissioned by the Ghana Society of the Physically Disabled and funded by the Norwegian Society for the Physically Disabled, a barrier-free design consciousness was developed.

The paper describes the design process and the resulting architectural scheme for the Project. The barrier-free design consciousness thereby obtained is analyzed to show its limitation in the attempt to apply it to achieve macro-accessibility in disenabling socio-cultural circumstances.

In conclusion, the paper recommends a number of interventions which can be undertaken to create a positive framework within which barrier-free design consciousness can be employed to promote effective macro-accessibility.

Key words

  • anthropometrics
  • barrier-free design consciousness
  • Sheltered Employment Center
  • Park-Library Complex



Traditionally in Ghana, similar to many other African countries, the disabled person has been regarded as one who should be a dependant of the extended family, being a passive recipient of services and charity. Supposedly, he had to be taken care of by the family within the confines of the domestic space and within the immediate limits of the community environment where there were willing neighbors to assist him/her traverse the physical barriers in the way of movement to and utilization of social and communal facilities.

However, this notion has gone through an extensive transformation, owing to the erosion of the supportive system provided by the extended family. The transformation which has affected the disabled dependency on the family has also taken place as a result of changes in governmental policies which have been going on since the 1960s. These policies, to some extent, address the need to train the disabled persons to acquire skills, necessary vocations and professions for active participation in the socio-economic development process. As a result, there is an upsurge in the number of disabled persons who are leading active public lives, becoming part of the user-group utilizing public buildings for production, recreation, commerce, transportation, education etc.

With this positive development in the socio-cultural and economic circumstance of the disabled persons, who form about two per cent (2 per cent) of the Ghanaian national population, the Ghana Society of the Physically Disabled was led to develop a sheltered employment center to both provide a training facility for its members and at the same time demonstrate the virtues of a designed environment, conceived with optimum accessibility considerations. Out of this development, intentions evolved the Jachie Sheltered Employment Center in 1984 located at Jachie Pramso in the Ashanti Region of Ghana. The experience gained in the design process of the project serves as a basis for this paper.

Familiarization with barrier-free design parameters

In many schools of architecture in Africa, no design assignments are planned and integrated into the academic programs to specifically address the accessibility factor. Anthropometric studies, which form part of the basic first year architecture design studies, refer to different age and sex groups, but do not take into consideration the fact that there exists in many African communities a sizeable percentage of the population with physical disabilities, which affect their anthropometrics and should therefore constitute a target-group in such architectural studies.

Having been part of this academic tradition resulted in the design process for the Jachie Sheltered Employment Center to be a remarkable personal learning experience. The Project, funded by the Norwegian Society for the Physically Disabled was conceived as an African village, where wheelchair, crutch, and cane users live, work and train in industrial skills under micro-accessibility conditions. Besides the sheltered workshops, which were meant for the manufacturing of handicraft goods, dresses, leather goods, and orthopaedic equipment, the facility was planned to include an administrative block with central stores, a multipurpose hall, staff housing units, 4 bed-sitter units, a hostel, a generator house and fuel depot, recreational grounds and a fish-pond.

The 3.8-hectare land site organized to have these units spatially composed with the aid of an intensive landscaping around a circulation system which created a barrier-free environment with a de-institutionalized atmosphere. The architectural designs of both the exterior spaces (including the accessways, community and domestic outdoor spaces) and the interior spaces (including living, sleeping, working, sanitary and ancillary spaces) were based on barrier-free environment design-parameters and the use of special disabled-oriented fittings and fixtures.

The first phase of the project was completed and commissioned in 1986. It has since been in use and serves as a major public facility in the Ashanti Region.

Evolution of a barrier-free design consciousness

The challenge to undertake the design task for the development of the Jachie Sheltered Employment Center created the opportunity to address in a new light, the issues which invariably cause the architectural design process to result in quality and cost effective schemes. As a result, there was the need to revert to the basic principle of user-orientedness in the evolution of the designs. Hence, at the conception stage of the designs, there was the need to borrow a wheelchair into the design office for use in order to afford each member of the design team an experience of the accessibility factor.

The experience created a greater sense for architectural detailing with respect to circulation and positioning of fixtures and fittings. No doubt, this consciousness made it easier to pursue design excellence in determination of functional relationships, space configuration and articulation for the complex. Although there was a great pressure both at the design and construction stages to achieve cost-effectiveness in the project, it was nonetheless discovered that consideration for accessibility created logically, higher cost-implications for the clients. Making provision for wider doors, (900-1000 mm), larger circulation space (1800-2000 mm), coupled with provision for ramps (gradient 1:20) and special sanitary fittings and accessories which had to be imported, invariably pushed up the construction cost by about 20 per cent more than it would have been.

The intensive collaboration with the clients, the Ghana Society of the Physically Disabled, provided an enabling circumstance to practice community architecture on the Project. By this, the clients' views on and sensibilities for the designs were recognized and incorporated into the final design entity, resulting in a scheme which became identifiable with the users and owners.

Application of a barrier-free design in the socio-cultural context

Since the experience of executing the architectural design of the Jachie Sheltered Employment Center, attempts have been made to apply the design consciousness gained on other projects in order to develop macro-accessibility. However, a number of socio-cultural factors have thereby posed constraints to limit the contextualization attempts. The following two scenarios illustrate these disenabling socio-cultural factors.

Consideration for the notion that since macro-accessibility is an utopian idea, disabled children should be trained to cope with non-barrier-free environments2, led to no provision of ramps and special sanitary facilities in the design of the Asanteman Children's Park Library Complex. However, to reduce the stress thereby created on wheelchair bound children who come to the Park, the design provided vehicular access for disabled persons to the major sections of the Park, where no vehicles are usually allowed.

In the development of a hostel facility for clinical students of the School of Medical Sciences of the University of Science and Technology, Kumasi, attempt to make the environment barrier-free was frustrated by the clients by virtue of insisting on a Design Brief which presupposed that disabled persons should not be admitted into the School and consequently not provided for in the School's Hostel. However, owing to the difficult topographical situation of the site, the design concept managed to incorporate a system of ramps to facilitate movement of goods and persons in the central circulation spine of the Hostel Complex.

The above scenarios of the constraints posed to frustrate the attempts to introduce macro-accessibility can be certainly eliminated, if access legislation is introduced into the Ghanaian Human Settlements (Planning and Development) Law and the Building Regulations. Architects should then consequently respond creatively to the requirements imposed on the design of housing, public buildings and spaces.

Conclusions and recommendations

In conclusion, it has to be emphasized that the execution of the design-task on the Jachie Sheltered Employment Center as an attempt to address the issue of micro-accessibility, served a positive purpose by stimulating a barrier-free design consciousness. The consciousness created however was personal and therefore its consequent influence and impact has been limited in scope. It can notwithstanding be harnessed to promote macro-accessibility, when an enabling development framework has been established.

As a contribution towards the establishment of the desired framework in Ghana and other African countries, it is recommended that amongst others:

  • The accessibility factor should be introduced into the first year anthropometric studies in the architectural design programs of schools of architecture in Africa. Students may thereby be infused with the notion of the desirability for barrier-free environments.
  • In both undergraduate and post graduate courses in Architecture, Planning and Engineering (Traffic and Highway), academic programs should be given to students to work on micro- and macro-accessibility projects.
  • Design Competitions should be sponsored amongst students on regular basis to address macro-accessibility design projects. These should be exhibited at Public gatherings when presented.
  • In conjunction with the Institute of Architects, donor agents and organizations should institute Citations to be awarded on regular basis to completed projects which address accessibility with a high degree of imagination.
  • To grant the legal framework for application of barrier-free design principles, attempts should be made by Disabled Associations and other related public organizations to promote legislations on accessibility in the built environment.



Amoako, J. B. (undated) Architectural, Recreational and Transportation Barriers to Integration of the Handicapped into the Community, unpublished paper presented at a symposium organized in connection into the Decade of Rehabilitation, Accra.

Central Mortgage and Housing Corporation (1975) Housing the Handicapped, Revised Edition, Canada.

Faculty Project Office (1983) Faculty of Architecture, U. S. T., Kumasi, Jachie Sheltered Employment Centre, Design Report, Kumasi, Ghana.

Hammond, J. O. (June 1984) Sheltered Employment Centre, Jachie-Pramso, Ashanti, unpublished Post-graduate Diploma Design Thesis, Department of Architecture, University of Science and Technology, Kumasi, Ghana.

Ministry of Works and Housing (1988) Ghana Building Regulations.

Republic of Ghana (1985) Rural Settlement (General Planning and Development) Law, (Draft Proposals). 

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