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Report of the Second International Expert Seminar
on Building Non-Handicapping Environments:
Renewal of Inner Cities

Prague, October 15-17, 1987

Download the Prague proceedings as a PDF file (420 KB)

The Macro Approach to Design and Planning:
A Barrier-Free Environment for Disabled People is Barrier Free for All

Rachel Hurst, Greenwich Association of Disabled People, United Kingdom

Historically, disabled people have either had to conform to their environment or be segregated within it or outside it. If you had a mobility impairment and could not get out of your home the solution was that you stayed where you were. It was not considered the duty of society to provide for what were considered ’special needs’. If your impairment was so severe that you could not exist within your home then society imposed the solution of life in an institution. This inevitable segregation meant that disabled people did not appear to exist - they were an invisible population and seemingly a very small population.

But this invisible population was never as small as it seemed and has increased dramatically. Life expectancy in developed countries has increased from 47 years in 1900 to 74 years in 1980. As the population of the elderly increases so does the prevalence of disease and disability. The introduction of sulphonomides and then penicillin and antibiotics greatly improved the chances of survival. In developing regions it is estimated that one child in ten is born with or acquires a physical, sensory or mental impairment. In 1975 the number of disabled people in the world was estimated at 12.3 percent of the total population. By the year 2000 the number is estimated to reach 13.5 percent.

As the numbers increased society began to recognize its obligations to disabled people, particularly to those who were disabled by war. But disabled people’s needs were identified by professionals and based on the individual’s impairment. The solutions were segregative and expensive: rehabilitation hospitals, long-stay institutions, day centers, sheltered workshops. The aids industry flourished; many of the aids were merely highly priced adaptations of existing equipment such as lever taps and doorknobs. None of these provisions required any major attitudinal or structural change by society itself. It was the disabled person who had to be adapted.

Then in the 1960’s disabled people, gaining strength from other civil rights movements, articulated their right to full and equal participation in society. They moved away from the medical model of disability and laid the burden of their segregation and isolation firmly in the lap of society itself. They demanded acceptance as equal members of society with equal rights. In some countries these rights were acknowledged and enshrined in legislation. This has gone a long way to ensuring a more accessible environment enabling more disabled people to participate and gain greater acceptance as part of that society.

But where do we go from here? Accepting that ten percent or more of the world population is disabled, that there is an ever increasing ageing population, accepting also that disabled people have an equal right to participation in and access to society, how do we ensure a barrier free environment? Adaptations and alterations to existing buildings are inevitable and can be expensive. But most physical barriers can be avoided at little or no cost if they are considered at the planning stage. Policy-makers in design and planning need to automatically incorporate the access needs of disabled people in their overall strategies.

This will, of course, require major re-thinking on the part of planners, architects and legislators. Radical innovations will need to be made to the training of professionals concerned. And building laws and regulations at all levels will have to reflect this incorporation of disabled people’s needs into the norm of planning and design policies.

There are many illustrations of how this can easily and cost-effectively be done: standardized appropriate door-widths and entrances, adequate space in front of doors, well-designed and appropriately located handles, switches and buttons and properly sited, distinct and understandable signing. The use of steps in many places is quite unnecessary, ramps of proper gradients not only help those in wheelchairs and the visually impaired but are easier for cyclists and people pushing shopping baskets and prams. Although in many developing countries wheelchairs are not available to disabled people it is to be hoped that in the future they will be. Therefore universal design criteria regarding space requirements need to be based on accessibility for wheelchairs which then make the space accessible and hazard-free to all people, with or without mobility aids. Stepped entrances may exist for aesthetic reasons or to prevent flooding, but there are alternative methods of dealing with the problem of excessive rain which do not provide barriers for mobility impaired people. Most of these design features cost no more than traditional methods, they just need to be incorporated at the beginning of the design process.

The macro approach to future planning policies will have opponents. In countries where building land is scarce and expensive there will be many cries that the changes in policies required to incorporate the needs of people in wheelchairs are prodigal of space and the needs of the majority must be met through the provision of more compact buildings. But are the needs of the majority in fact being met by small rooms, high-rise blocks and endless stairs? Experience has shown that overcrowded, high-rise tenement blocks cause ill-health, isolation and an inevitable increase in the number of disabled people. Many people who have houses or flats with two or three small rooms are quite likely to knock the walls down and make one large room! Is the planner’s concept of what the majority needs and wants not just the result of tradition and expediency?

In developed countries where custom and practice have to an extent become part of building regulations and laws it may seem difficult to ensure that the environment is barrier free. When difficulties arise it will be said that they cannot be overcome without high costs. But that excuse has to be looked at very carefully. A change of attitudes and a shift in priorities are more likely to dissipate the problem than the expenditure of large sums of money.

In providing for the needs of the majority it has to be remembered that nearly everyone is disabled at some time in their life or has someone who is disabled living with them. If the built environment already has a basic accessibility the problems thrown up by impairment are considerably lessened and do not involve a segregation or removal from society. Incorporating the needs of disabled people as a basic criteria for design and planning isolates no one. It provides a more manageable and freer environment for everyone.

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