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


Video for accessibility

Ramesh Biswas, Architect, Austria

The question of accessibility has rightfully gained importance in the last few years due to the growing number of disabled and elderly people in the population, and to a change in attitudes leading away from institutional care towards independence and individual mobility and access. However, the results of these deliberations are not yet visible in the daily environment. There is a consensus among professionals, who have been dealing with the subject for several years, that although much has been achieved in the West in terms of the establishment of rights, national legislation, building regulations and norms, these measures have not had the desired results in actual building practice. And although similar measures may eventually be introduced in developing countries, unless lessons are learnt from experience, a similar gap between theory and practice may be expected.

There are two fundamental reasons for this misfit. The first is that the basic steps in the process of bringing about change in a system are not consistently carried out. In any process of conscious social change of attitudes, be it the environmental question, disarmament or the subject of accessibility, there are three inevitable steps: information, awareness, and action.

The first step is the transfer of knowledge and up-to-date information on the subject. This has been achieved to a great extent in many Western countries, although the task has yet to be begun in most developing countries. The second step is to translate this information base into a deep awareness of the problems of mobility. The third step is to ensure wide-ranging accessibility in the environment. Without the intermediate phase of awareness, the third phase usually produces unsatisfactory results, if any.

Another deficiency is that the researched information is often not addressed to the right people. Insights and rules should reach people who are actually planning and constructing buildings (architects, planners, landscapers, interior and furniture designers, building supervisors, and specialist construction workers such as masons, carpenters, electricians and plumbers), as well as all those who are training in universities or technical institutions for any of the above occupations. At the moment, there is no systematic attempt to reach this crucial audience in a form that is comprehensible. This is a great obstacle to the realization of widespread accessibility. As most active professionals are young and non-disabled, it is left to the few who are personally touched by the problem to struggle through tomes of standards and regulations. In the developing countries even this is not available.

It is clear that new methods and media have to be found to overcome these problems. It was thus that the video project was born, supported by the largest accident insurance company in Austria. The aim is to reach the audience described above, to inculcate an awareness of the problem. From the outset it was clear that the video could not possibly deal with all the situations that physically disabled people face, nor could it describe all the solutions. The content should be restricted to the major difficulties of mobility, the most common barriers, and the simplest ways to avoid or remove these barriers. Over and above that, the video should animate viewers to observe and think about the day-to-day problems of mobility and to find their own solutions in specific situations.

This brings me to a further aspect of the project. The task would be to create a video specifically for the Austrian situation. However, a video would be an ideal instrument to use in developing countries as well. Some adaptation, and the introduction of specific local context and conditions, is important but the video could help overcome language and literacy barriers as well as cultural differences in communicating its content.

In terms of content, the major difference would be my advocacy of low-technology solutions and the ability to turn existing situations in developing countries into advantages. One example is the climate, which permits outdoor shopping in bazaars or directly from the street without having to enter the shop. Another is the prevalence of mud architecture, which allows adaptation by users without much technical know-how or financial investment. There is considerable controversy over some aspects of content. For example, the use of humor.

My work in the video field, however, has made me aware of the inherent problems of videos. Video possesses advantages over other media, but, like every medium, it has its limitations. The idea of the global information society propagated in recent years, where everyone is connected to everyone else through a global communication network, is of course a gigantic illusion. The fact is that people have vastly differing levels of education and experience, and no unlimited flow of information is possible between these levels. Therefore a video can be considered successful if it identifies its target audience and works towards touching this audience effectively.

For this reason the video will probably be restricted to an audience of professionals, which does not mean it should not leave an impression on those with another kind of training, such as construction workers, or people outside the field, such as law-makers, bureaucrats and politicians.

Another difficulty that any medium has is, of course, the loss of informational content and message which takes place. Analogous to the laws of physics, which state that any conversion of matter into energy or vice versa, or any motion, results in a loss of energy into the atmosphere, one can say that any transfer of information results in a loss of some part of it. In addition, there is the problem of differing or even false interpretation: if ten people who have seen an event on video are questioned afterwards, there will be ten different versions of the event. Not to speak of the relatively low retention in the memory of what one has seen on the screen.

Nevertheless, a video can reach a wide audience and hold their attention for at least its duration, which is more than can be said for many a manual or book of regulations. It can provoke discussion simply due to its nature as a mass medium and its capability of reaching many people simultaneously instead of just one person at a time.

The author would appreciate ideas and suggestions on this theme from all those involved in the field, and hopes that the video will go a long way towards increasing awareness and ultimately creating a universally accessible environment.

Questions and comments

Q:   During the slide presentation, you mentioned that North American internalized shopping centers are such a hostile environment for persons with disabilities. I wonder if you could expound on that because I am not too clear on what is hostile about internalized shopping centers.

A:   The shopping centers are, in the first place, inaccessible themselves because they are surrounded by a sea of cars and the only way to get there is by car. So even a non-disabled pedestrian has no chance of getting to these places.

Once inside it depends upon the level of design. If there are elevators everywhere then the shops are accessible and perhaps, in some ways, safer than a street with cars on it and that's probably part of the reason why they are so popular, because streets are made unsafe and unpleasant by the number of cars.

I disagree with the approach that says it is enough to put an elevator in a building and then it is accessible, because it ignores a whole variety of other kinds of disabilities. It is a kind of technical approach which finds one solution to a problem but that solution either ignores other things or itself becomes a problem, I mean if the elevator does not work, for example.

The other problem, to take up Adolf's concept of the macro approach, not only is it controversial, the idea of lifting every building in the world, but if you think of it in a macro way you can not ignore that it is something this planet can not afford. You'd destroy the planet in the process of doing this; the amount of energy used in production. We are faced with the fact that we have to find some other kind of low-cost solutions.

Q:   I think we have all seen the examples of poor technology, but quite honestly the one thing we must not do is develop naive notions that providing Third World solutions are that easy. The fact is, an internalized shopping center is an extremely comfortable environment for many persons with disabilities. The fact that you can actually drive up to what is usually an allocated parking space right alongside one of the doors and then go into an air conditioned environment where all the floors are level and there are no thresholds between the shops is a reality, and not all shopping centers are multi-level. In fact, it is a very bad retail policy to try to introduce multi-level shopping centers. They tend to be single story shopping centers.

In North America, you tend to go in at one level and travel through at that level right through. But without getting into the specifics, I think the important thing is, while we have to find Third World solutions we must not be that naive that these solutions have been there from time immemorial.

If you speak to any of the delegates who have found their way into a rural dwelling, sometimes it is not that easy to beat your way across a dusty path. I have done it and I am sure a lot of the delegates have done it. The reality is that the day-to-day living in the Third World as a disabled person is not that easy and we must be realistic about it. I totally share your sentiments about trying to minimize technology and your sentiments about minimizing energy usage but you have a situation where maybe you could look on the macro scale, as described by Adolf, and you have to look at urban planning. Urban planning starts dictating the higher densities which generate the problems and very often, as Saffa mentioned, areas where they probably have got miles and miles of desert to build on but they are building twenty story buildings in the middle of the desert.

A:   I am very well aware that traditional environments are not always accessible. In Asia we're faced with a lot of problems, usually lack of resources, and population explosion in the cities, urban population expansion. What I was trying to say is that we do have some advantages. One of them is the climate, another is the possibility, in an informal sector, without having everything regulated. In any case you will find a lot of people who would not be willing to live in a traditional kind of settlement any more. So all you can do is to pick out some things that are good, principles that are good and see how you can adapt and use them in the urban context.

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