Accessibility in South Africa

Neville Cohen, of Chairman Industries in South Africa, notes in his paper that access and disability are broad terms, and that three steps should be taken prior to applying for legislation: to define requirements, to select a knowledgeable task force, and to locate influential advocates in the community. A history of building regulations in South Africa is given, followed by questions and answers concerning accessibility and national and cultural differences. Internet publication URL:

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

Neville Cohen, Chairman Industries, South Africa





The term is a very broad and all-embracing word. It can refer to access to:
  • Education
  • Employment
  • Leisure
  • Sports
  • Transport
  • Buildings and public spaces (barrier-free design)

Barrier-free design

Again, this term covers a wide range of architectural hazards encountered by people with disabilities. There are three types of disabilities:

1. Intellectual disability

2. Sensory disability:
  • blind and partially sighted
  • deaf and hearing impaired
3. Mobility impaired:
  • mothers - pram pushers
  • elderly and senior citizens
  • amputees (lower limb injuries)
  • crutch and cane users
  • wheelchair users


Before attempting to apply for legislation, there are three important pre-requisites:

1.   Define requirements which suit the country in which the legislation will be introduced.

Requirements differ for:
  • developing countries
  • highly developed countries
  • combination of both (applies to Zimbabwe and the Republic of South Africa)

Legislation in countries such as United Kingdom, USA, Canada, Germany, and Holland is very comprehensive and prescribed in great detail, covering every aspect of barrier-free design to the extent that it becomes not only onerous on developers but also expensive. (Refer Americans with Disabilities Act). It is, therefore, not convenient to take overseas legislation and apply it piecemeal to the requirements of countries such as the Republic of SA and Zimbabwe. We need to carefully select the critical items which, with relatively low capital expenditure, will offer the greatest improvement to accessibility. Examples:
  • Ramps, stairs
  • Width of doorways
  • Provision of enlarged toilet cubicles
  • Size of elevators
  • Parking facilities
  • Hazards to blind and partially sighted people

2.   Formation of an Access Task Force of knowledgeable people and experts (including people with disabilities) to research the design criteria and prepare draft legislation. (Legislation of this nature is often drafted by architects, engineers, well-wishers, and welfare bodies, who have not got the vaguest idea of the accessibility needs for people with disabilities - utmost importance to include such people who face architectural barriers every day of their lives and are very familiar with their requirements).

3.   Locate highly regarded, powerful, aware people in the community who recognize the problem and who can be effective in State, Province and Municipal authorities. Locating and lobbying such people is of prime importance for the introduction of effective legislation.

Designing of barrier-free facilities should be undertaken when the very first conceptual draft plans are produced. If barrier-free design is an accepted concept, the additional costs are negligible. The costs of altering and redesigning inaccessible buildings are sometimes horrific.

History of SA building regulations

Prior to 1986, various Provinces and Municipalities all had their own regulations which, although similar, differed to varying extents throughout the country. In 1986 the National Building Regulations were promulgated. Over a period of years a Committee of Experts, including architects, builders, developers, and the Bureau of Standards researched and compiled this draft legislation. This was then sent out to numerous interested parties throughout the country for comment.

The comments were meticulously examined and alterations to the draft were made where necessary. Disabled people were not invited to submit their comments. However, Disabled People South Africa (DPSA) offered the Australian Building Regulations and Code of Practice for consideration by the National Building Regulation Committee. This Committee decided to omit the section dealing with the requirements for people with disabilities. When this omission came to the attention of the DPSA Executive, an immediate approach was made to the Minister concerned. Within one week he had instructed the SABS to convene a special subcommittee, including people with disabilities, to research and prepare an addendum to the National Building Regulations. This was achieved within a period of three months and was eventually included as a special section of these Regulations.

Five years have elapsed since the original promulgation and, as is usual with any legislation of this type, improvements and additions have resulted in a simpler and more meaningful version.

DPSA has now undertaken an extension of the building regulations, known as a Code of Practice, which will further enhance the application of the regulations by providing guidelines, including drawings and sketches of suggested layouts. Architects, Developers and Municipalities have welcomed this approach and it is hoped that the Code of Practice will be published during 1992.

The inclusion of people with disabilities in any body concerned with the introduction of barrier-free design cannot be over-stressed and I recommend that the formation of such a body is of prime importance in Zimbabwe.

Questions and comments

Q:   We all have our biases and as a wheelchair user myself the needs of wheelchair users come to my mind first when I think of accessibility. We often forget other groups. In our country, for the past 10 - 15 years, we have become more and more conscious of people who are sensitive to chemical substances. It is quite a hot topic in the U. S. where they call it Multiple Chemical Sensitivities (MCS).

A:   We feel quite strong about noxious fumes and we recognize that if we had to go it alone, we would get nowhere until the general legislation goes in on it. It is far easier to get recognition of your needs when there is already a total awareness in the country of what is required.

To go back to the building regulations, as in most developing countries, I assume we went the route of local legislation where each municipality or local authority brought out their own little codes of practice and they were known as bylaws. As these were local, they applied only within the bounds of that local authority. They were all similar in that they differed; in some cases there were omissions and in other cases there were inclusions. And we were just lucky that when we decided to go for barrier-free design in a big way all these legislations of the different provinces and of the different local authorities were being put together as a national building regulation. And that made our life a lot easier - or we thought it did. In actual fact, barrier-free design was left out of the very first draft of the national building regulations. What we did was to phone up the minister concerned and said, "We're coming, six of us in wheelchairs, and we're going to camp on your doorstep". He said, "No need. I know what's happened and they are going to put it right." I believe it is easier for us to tag onto general legislature than to go look for little pieces of our own.

Mr. Bhandari mentioned this morning that he hoped to introduce barrier-free legislation prior to general legislation on building regulations. Our experience has been when we tried to do that we got nowhere, but every time legislation has been introduced in some other sphere as general legislation in the country we can tag on and add on our bit.

C:   The same standpoint is taken in Sweden regarding this. The question of materials and poisons and such things is a general problem for the general authorities. I would like to raise a principal question of compromises. There are compromises in everything and on different levels. International standardization is a compromise; the standardization going on in Europe now is a compromise. When we saw this European Manual, which Mr. Biswas mentioned, made by some people from Holland for the European Community, some of us, at least from Scandinavia, were very disappointed because we thought that standard was too low for us. It raised the question if there is any point to make a standard like that if there are different levels of development or money or awareness or whatever. I have no answer myself, the answer given there by the French was to show not one single solution but different levels where some were more ideal and others somewhat primitive.

We also met some cultural differences. The people from Holland said in a private home you do not need to close the door to the toilet which was for us, from Sweden and those from Britain, a little shocking. So there are also, of course, cultural differences to take care of, even in a small area like Europe.

C:   There may not only be cultural differences involved in setting up standards. There is also another dimension. Who were the people who suggested the standard of sitting on the toilet without being able to close the door? They were non-disabled experts, whereas the people who protested were wheelchair users themselves.

C:   On the subject of international standards, I think there is one area where international standards can be detrimental in the area of disability legislation: South Africa has been isolated from the international world for some time and the manufacturers of various items in South Africa produce items to their own standards.

There is a bureau of standards which has produced standards not totally in isolation from the ISO standards but there certainly are contradictions. When those contradictions generate additional cost, for example if we were to adopt international standards and international standards were out 50 mm in terms of the size of a WC pan, then I do have some problems with international standards. Those are the sort of costs that are unnecessary. One probably has to compromise under these circumstances and try and achieve the best that you can with the standard equipment and the standard materials you have in your country.

C:   This question can be raised in other ways. We can say that there will be international standards on nearly everything, sooner or later, and then the question is if those standards are in accordance with what we want or if they are just what the manufacturers want from a technical point of view. So sometimes we have to be into the international standardization work even if we do not want it or need it or think it's worthwhile from our point of view. I think elevators are such an area. Elevators have become an international market.

A:   With international trade opening up right across the world as it is, those people who do not adhere to international standards will find they cannot export their goods. So I think it will come, not because we want it to come, but because economic circumstances will force it. Economic circumstances are far stronger than any lobbying we as disabled people can achieve.

C:   Just a short comment on what was said about accepting an international standard. The Austrians are not happy about the European Manual either and so they suggested that it should be translated and on every page there should be, printed in red, an additional note saying that in this way the Austrian standard is higher. Other people said it should just be mentioned at the beginning that these are the minimum standards and it could refer to an appendix at the end. But in some cases feelings were so strong that people refused to accept the International Accessibility Symbol because it has been used for all kinds of things that are not accessible. Whereas we use our own symbol for places that really are accessible. Others say that if Austria wants to join the European Community in the end there is going to be a great deal of international standardization. One has to accept it even if it is a minimum standard.

C:   The same discussion is going on in Sweden. We are on the way into the European Community as Austria is and there are questions connected with the standards and which freedom we will have in this case. But I do not think it is only a question of editing this document, a more principal question is what is good or bad, what is minimum, and if there is a general minimum or if it's a cultural and economic compromise.

Q:   My question regards elevators and Braille and raised tiles, the issue of voice synthesizer on elevator - can it not be a solution to illiteracy?

A:   In South Africa it worked the other way. We have nine ethnic languages plus English and Afrikaans and we have not yet found someone who is multilingual and can produce all those noises within the short space of time that an elevator is going between those floors. So in actual fact, it makes the question far worse.

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