Report of the CIB Expert Seminar on Building Non-Handicapping Environments, Harare 1992
Essentials of a comprehensive accessibility legislation
Javed Hassan, Association of Physically Disabled Persons, Pakistan
An issue of great concern for the disabled people of developing countries has always been the inaccessibility of the man-made environment. With advances in rehabilitation providing an ever-increasing number of disabled persons with the capabilities to lead active productive lives, it has become necessary that we "rehabilitate" the environment as well. Great expense and effort is often thwarted by man-made barriers such as high curbs, stairs without handrails, narrow and difficult entrances and a host of other environmental inconveniences.
It has been said, and we emphasize, that "there can be no social integration of disabled people into society unless you first take steps to ensure their physical participation in it". It is imperative therefore that the physical environment be so designed as to enable everyone including persons with disabilities to participate in and contribute to community life. All buildings and facilities meant for use by the general public should be made usable and safe for all. This is of decisive importance to people with disabilities for exercising their basic civil right of equality and full participation.
To ensure this, we need a strong legal instrument with effective enforcement and implementation clauses and which provides for legal proceedings in case of non-compliance. Such an instrument would learn from the inadequacies of existing legislation while embodying the following five points:
1. The act should ensure the fullest access to and use of the built environment and the complete integration of disabled or environmentally limited people into the mainstream of society. If similar measures promoting employment, housing and access to public accommodation and educational facilities exists then it should be coordinated with such measures to achieve maximum impact.
2. The coverage of the act should be as broad as possible when balanced against cost factors. That is, new construction which is cheaper to make accessible should merit broader coverage than existing facilities, while use of public funds in construction or alteration should merit greater coverage than when private efforts are undertaken. Similarly, broader coverage should be mandated where increased public use occurs. Finally, there should be economic incentives in the form of tax provisions to induce compliance and voluntary private initiatives.
3. The act should specify minimum standards of accessibility with flexible means of updating them periodically. The standards should reflect an environmental approach rather than a "brick and mortar" approach, and should stress maximum integration of disabled and non-disabled persons within the built environment. Disabled persons should have strong input in the standard-setting process to ensure that standards fit their needs.
4. The act should contain a well-defined and complete implementation mechanism. Authority and responsibility as well as procedures should be clearly stated rather than left to uncertainty, with the authority being backed by a professional staff. In addition, major affected interests, i.e. disabled persons, should be included in the composition of that authority. The implementation mechanism should include "before the fact" review of a design to ensure compliance and to avoid construction of non-conforming facilities.
5. Effective administrative enforcement mechanisms should be provided with resort to judicial enforcement only if necessary. The mechanism should take account of any existing, similar mechanisms, with responsibility for standard-settings waivers and enforcement being retained by the principal agency.
Environmental design standards
The next most important part or element of any legislative measure addressing the removal of environmental barriers is the adoption of the environmental design standards, for it is these standards that will determine the accessibility of individual facilities. To be enforceable, the law must ensure the specificity and flexibility of standards, i.e. any standards adopted must be specific enough to provide practical guidance to architects, engineers and contractors and give them correct information about what is required. At the same time the standards must be flexible enough to meet the needs of persons with different types of disabilities and allow architects, engineers and contractors to utilize new and innovative approaches to accessibility without being hindered by narrow standards. In addition, the provision of guidelines specifying maximum integration, safety and independence and mandating integrated facilities should help ensure that standards adopted are consistent with the goals of the act. This along with the provision of minimum standards, gives strong legislative guidance to administrative discretion.
Many existing legislative measures addressing the removal of environmental barriers place administration of the law in traditional building code or fire safety agencies or divide the authority for administration among a number of agencies. They also seldom provide formal mechanisms for input by concerned/interested or affected groups, especially physically disabled persons in standard setting and implementation.
These approaches suffer from several problems. Many of the implementing agencies are tied to existing concepts of structural and safety standards which tend towards a "brick and mortar" approach to rather than the desired environmental design concept. The philosophy behind any legislative measure should be based on the fullest access and integration within the total environment and not just ramps and elevators.
Additionally, the absence of formal mechanisms for input in the standard-setting and the granting of variances/exemptions makes it less likely that the needs of those persons the statute is meant to serve will be adequately represented. Environmentally limited persons are a valuable source of information and their input should be formally sought. Finally, coordination of policy-making and implementation is frequently made more difficult by the fragmented administration of many statutes. This can easily produce a wide degree a variation in the effective implementation of the act's requirements.
Therefore a single administrative body, namely the Environmental Design Board, responsible for policy making, standard-setting, rule-making, implementation and granting of waivers is suggested. The policies, rules and standards adopted by the Environmental Design Board are to be carried out by a Secretary appointed by and answerable to the Board. Implementation will occur through the review of plans and specifications for the construction of facilities covered by the act and their inspection to ensure that construction is completed in accordance with approved plans/specifications. Enforcement provisions are utilized only where this procedure fails or is inapplicable.
The implementation function should involve both plan review, inspection and enforcement. These tasks require the technical expertise of trained and experienced professionals to review plans and specifications, answer day-to-day technical questions, conduct inspections of built facilities, conduct investigations and testify as expert witnesses in enforcement proceedings. Thus, these tasks should be given to a secretary who can provide the required technical expertise directly or through his or her staff that is necessary to carry out the policy of the Board.
Putting the responsibility for policy-making and implementation in a single entity greatly facilitates the coordination of standard-setting and implementation. It avoids the fragmentation of these functions which can occur when authority is distributed among several agencies. Such fragmentation can easily result in a patchwork of standards, inconsistent implementation and make the achievement of accessible, integrated facilities unlikely.