Independent Living Institute

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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)

Removing Architectural Barriers: The Example of the University of Rome

Mario Tiberi, Roberto Palumbo, Attilio Nesi, Sergio Bozzetti, School of Architecture, University of Rome

General Principles

In 1981, the United Nations International Year of Disabled Persons, the Dean of the University of Rome established a working group with the task of collecting documentation and information on problems experienced by persons with disabilities, contacting institutions and organizations of disabled people, and of making specific proposals to the University.

The formation of the working group was a sign of the procrastination of our University regarding the problems of students with disabilities, but it was also an indication of the administration’s willingness to establish a new course of action. While the University was, at that time, very involved in the subject of disability, both in research and teaching, especially in the School of Social Work and Special Education specific action for the disabled students was virtually non-existent.

The proposals of the working group aimed at the complete integration of the disabled into academic life. This included encouraging disabled students with high school diplomas to attend the University by eliminating the tremendous number of difficulties which have hindered many disabled people from achieving higher education. A census taken in the 1982-83 academic year showed that only about ten out of more than 100,000 students had some disability. Most of these students were blind or had motor disabilities. The reason for the small number was that many otherwise qualified students could not continue higher education because of the University administration’s apathy regarding the needs of disabled students.

The first problem for disabled students is transportation to and from the university for which they normally have to rely on the help of relatives or friends. As a result of requests by the University administration to the municipal authorities, transportation in special paratransit vehicles and reserved parking on University grounds is now available. On entering the university area disabled students can be met by personal assistants. These persons are conscientious objectors doing their alternative civil service in this way under a trilateral agreement between the University, the Ministry of Defence, and the Institute for the Right to Academic Study (Istituto per il Diritto allo Studio Universitario) of the Lazio Region. The CO’s, trained by rehabilitation experts, escort disabled students to lectures, exams, meetings with professors, etc. Attempts have been made to reduce architectural barriers, which we will examine later on, and to facilitate, wherever possible, access to teaching areas without the help of an assistant. The system was at first limited to a few disabled people and CO’s. Today about twenty CO’s and more than twenty disabled students are involved which proves that persons with disabilities demand higher education once practical difficulties are eliminated by architectural changes and appropriate services. Blind students, with the assistance of CO’s, organized a tape library with recordings of text books for some of the main courses. Assistive devices of various kinds such as lecture-room recorders, special furniture and accessible telephones complete the measures to assist students with disabilities.

The intention today is to eliminate the need for special arrangements for individual disabled students by making general adaptations which increase accessibility for all. In this, the data base of the Help Information and Evaluation Service (S.I.V.A.) in Milan has been useful which collects information on all international innovations in the area of assisting persons with disabilities in daily life. With the help of this information source, it is hoped that the University will be able to provide the best equipment for improving disabled students’ physical as well as learning situation.

The results of last year’s action cannot be said to be overwhelmingly successful, but they give some reason to be satisfied and convinced that our university is at least heading in the right direction.

Information, Training and Results

One of the main interests of the working group was the removal of architectural barriers. The targets were: to eliminate obstacles to the free movement of disabled students whilst observing building regulations; to initiate gradual adaptation, where possible, of existing structures to this end; to gain a better understanding of the technical aspects of the problem; and to inform the public both within and outside the university by appropriate action in a number of directions.

Investigations and subsequent program of action towards these targets were entrusted to a group of experts, co-coordinated by Dr. Roberto Palumbo, and financed by the University Board of Directors. A report of the group’s work was published and sent to many institutions and organizations working directly or indirectly in the field of disability at the national, regional and local level. The report is a critical and thoughtful look at the problem and contains a list of recommendations for action aimed at contributing, albeit in a piecemeal way, to the removal of some of the obstacles which exclude a significant sector of student and non-student population.

The work documented in the report consisted of:

identifying the main architectural barriers on the university campus and its periphery,

setting up criteria and priorities for their step-by-step removal based on their strategic importance and on economic considerations,

providing technical documentation in the form of a handbook which is to facilitate the work of the Technical Department of the University and can be used in university courses on such problems,

contributing to the general understanding and awareness of the exclusion of persons with disabilities through architectural barriers and emphasizing the importance of their removal.

In informing a wider public, a video program and a travelling exhibition were produced which received the attention of some broadcasting networks and other media.

The working group, made up mainly of researchers from the School of Architecture and the students who conducted the surveys, was complemented by experts from regional government offices and local health departments (Unita Sanitarie Locali) in order to stress the need for cooperation and sharing of experience between university and public administrations. The working group, together with the experts, organized courses on the subject of architectural barriers for officers of the Municipality of Rome in charge of building permits.

Our research and the adaptations that resulted from it were technical in nature and, as such, cannot solve the much more complex problem of integrating disabled people into academic life. It is also for technical reasons that not all requests for removal of architectural barriers in university buildings can be granted. However, the limited targets for our study seem to have been reached, and are a first contribution in finding a solution to this problem.

Experimental Research

The survey conducted by the working group pointed out some difficulties in applying existing regulations and questioned the credibility and legitimacy of some of the standards contained in the regulations. In many cases, design specifications seemed too wide or inadequate in other respects. Specifically, regarding safety issues in the use of fixtures and equipment, Italian national regulations seemed to be based on a critical examination of foreign regulations rather than on objective evaluations and experimental analysis of disabled people’s needs and capabilities.

For this reason, the working group planned to critically re-examine current regulations and their technical specifications. The opportunity for this arose in connection with the edition of some regional laws in 1982 that made funds available to public institutions for renovation work aimed at removing architectural barriers and for experimental research. The Lazio Regional Board asked the Department of Industrial Design and Building Production, University of Rome to conduct a study of the acceptable minimum dimensions for accessibility and mobility of people using wheelchairs in renovating existing buildings.

National regulations for the elimination of architectural barriers are rather new for Italy and are contained in Presidential Decree 384/78 of 1978 that covers new construction but not existing buildings. Instead, the legislator decided to wait for further investigations, preferably at regional level, that should take into account local characteristics and limitations.

In our study, we look at a building’s performance. Any evaluation of quality must be based on a comparison between performance and the needs of the users. User requirements are related to a wide range of situations, such as the need for social integration, the need of maintaining one’s own identity and the need for security and safety. Applying these needs to the use of a building they translate into the possibility of entering the building, of moving freely within it and of experiencing security in using the building. These requirements can be optimally met in new buildings. In the renovation of existing buildings, however, there are a number of problems due to structure, location, distribution and image that do not allow the use of rigid and undifferentiated standards.

In our research we systematically analyzed a hypothetical building by defining performance criteria and identifying the building’s shortcomings and necessary alterations. The performance criteria are the central element of the study. To define them, experimental tools and methods had to be used such as field studies, room and situation simulations, the use of prototypes, testing by various user categories and the critical evaluation of Italian and foreign technical specifications.

The working group followed the prevailing trend of avoiding standards that consist of single values only and, instead, decided to establish value ranges. The results are flexible specifications for finding solutions which are compatible with stringent evaluations of costs and benefits. The resulting specifications allow a competent designer discretion in establishing the optimal ratio between costs and benefits.

(A summary of the dimensional requirements and a sample survey form are available from the authors.)

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