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)

Barrier Free Design: Safety for a Caring Community

Bill Wrightson, New Zealand Disabled Persons Assembly

The Successful NZ Lobby for Access Provision

Our proposition in this paper is that barrier free design with its philosophy, conceptual framework and design detail represents a community design base for ease of use and accident prevention across the whole of the built environment.

We first formally addressed the issue of access to public buildings in NZ in 1967 at a public meeting of governmental, local authority, voluntary and commercial agencies and professional practitioners. A planned strategy to be pursued from that point was identified. We were to proceed along three specific paths:

Develop legislation and regulation.

Introduce education programmes.

Provide technical information.
The responsibility fell to disability lobbyists and the voluntary welfare sector to target their lobbying and programme activities at:

Policy makers in government and local authority.
Professional practitioners and policy implementors.
The general public - media and education institutions.

With the initiative from the voluntary welfare sector, our first access code (NZ Standard 4121 Part I) was published in 1971. A second document (Part II), on signage, followed in 1975. The Code was recommendatory, it had no compulsion, but visible results were achieved with the appearance of wheelchair accessible toilets (especially in airport terminals) and kerb ramps. Legislative back-up was needed to mandate the recommendatory approach of the Code.

In 1975 the Disabled Persons Community Welfare Act was passed. Section 25 of this act requires that every new public building or major reconstruction must provide "reasonable and adequate" access for disabled people to visit or work in the building.

From 1975 the International Symbol of Access began to appear as a response to the Code(s) and as a tool to increase public awareness. The extensive outdoor life and mobility which New Zealanders enjoy and take for granted now became a possibility for people with mobility impairments. Wheelchair users had been "given permission" to be seen in public. A change in attitude had begun and the disability groups became more visible. As a wheelchair user I was now expected, by my non-disabled friends, to go "out" more regularly to watch rugby games, to visit restaurants and take holidays with my wife and children.

Education and Enforcement

The lobby impetus of the mid 1970s was sustained - a nationwide network of local disability groups was set up to monitor progress. The voluntary welfare sector began educating architects through design award competitions and the launch of the Barrier Free Programme in 1979.

Initiated by the NZ Crippled Children Society in association with the Ministry of Works and Development and the Department of Social Welfare, the Barrier Free Programme introduced the need to plan for the whole community by including design requirements for disability groups as a top priority in the design and construction process.

We have received widespread international endorsement of the the high quality of the technical and promotional material the Barrier Free Programme has produced. We welcome with pride the acclaimation our efforts have received over a sustained period. I commend this material to you and encourage you to come and view it.

The disability voice continued to press for legislative mechanism to enforce the DPCW Act requirement. In 1980 New Zealand’s 240 local authorities were given the power and responsibility, by an amendment to the Local Government Act, to withhold building permit approval for plans which did not comply with the DPCW Act.

It was now time to review progress in relation to the original strategy. New Zealand’s advantage of being a small, youthful, earthquake-prone nation has meant change a building replacement has been achieved to date with a minimum of real resistance.

Some outstanding individual examples of intergrated architectural and environmental planning have been produced. Wellington, our capital city, has undergone complete renewal of its inner city environment. Dramatically upgraded earthquake requirements have resulted in New Zealand’s best central city access provision for disabled people. Shopping malls, parking buildings, theatres and cinemas, restaurants and sports stadiums are now part of an intergrated network.

A New Code: NZS 4121:1985

The successes were encouraging but there was still a prevalence of misunderstanding, ignorance and procrastination over definition of the phrase "reasonable and adequate".

A new access code was required. The voluntary welfare sector through New Zealand Crippled Children Society initiated redraft of the standard with strong support from the Standards Asscoation of New Zealand, the Department of Social Welfare and a newly formed agency presenting the whole of the disability sector in NZ (the Disabled Persons Assembly).

This new Code NZS 4121:1985 was launched by our Minister of Social Welfare in December 1985. Replacing the original NZS 4121 Parts I and II, the new code has had a dramatic impact. Architects suddenly discovered that "reasonable and adequate" access meant a great deal more than ramps, wide doors and funny toilets - ground surfaces, floor coverings, lift design and visibility factors all had to be considered as part of the encompassing concept of the "Access Route".

Property developers resisted the code. They said its requirements for lifts in two storey buildings over a certain floor area meant substantial extra cost. In terms of overall cost to the building industry this was insignificant - the solution for new lift design options is being pursued as a compromise for the smaller building.

Designers have been challenged by the new code. Their response has been favourable. Change is occurring faster than at any point in the past. The NZ disability sector must continue its monitoring and support role. The proposed appearance of a completely new national building code must ensure an improved level of access provision for NZ.

From Access Rights to Accident Prevention

Since 1985 the Barrier Free Programme in NZ has concentrated on the area of design for accident prevention. To expand the planned achievements outlined in the previous section an updated strategy was adopted:

With the same target groups and directions identified from the outset, functional use of the built environment based on rights of access became the priority.

The generalised focus on the built environment was refined, to a specific emphasis using the private home as a model.


Physical access to the built environment is a basic human right. Rehabilitation International in its "Charter for the ’80s" proclaim under Fundamental Concept 38 that "people with disabilities have a right to use all structures intended for general public use". Deficiences in environmental planning have created the special need to ensure maintenance of rights through remedial legislative provision. The enemy is the planner. He or she can design you "in" or design you "out" of community participation.

It is already well established that every member of the community will have difficulty with the functional use of the built environment during their lifetime. Traditional thinking has always designed and constructed our physical surroundings with the emphasis on "the structure" - its appearance, construction methods and materials. Genuine consideration for safety, convenience and ease of use for the whole spectrum of social usage has a very low priority on the planner’s and designer’s check list. In the final analysis the built environment is for all people to use and, once completed, the structure will stand for a long time.

Buildings must never be erected solely as monuments to their designer or owner. Physical structures which will generally outlive their designer and original owner must ensure, in their original construction, accessibility to a community who will continue to use them. Environments designed with little consideration for function can continue maiming people for years after their designer has died.

Conceptual Framework

The building must never be designed in isolation from the other two basic components of environmental planning. Good environmental design recognises the inter-relationship of:

We identify the "accessible journey" as the mechanism which links these components. Critical points of transaction occur in the "accessible journey" where the components merge. Good design includes detail and construction supervision of elements like:

location of parking spaces
connection between parking and building - ground surfaces, kerb ramps, landing areas,
handrails and entrance thresholds
interior circulation - doors, corridors, floor coverings, lifts and toilet facilities.

These items are vital to ensure smooth transition between components at the critical points. They also provide the basic design detail for the "accessible journey" and a design base for functional use of the built environment.

A Model for Safe Functional Design

A model for safe functional design was presented in NZ with a programme called Safe House ’86. A series of seminars and a display home were enthusiastically supported by the Accident Compensation Corporation, the Health Department, the Housing Corporation of NZ and a private housing construction company. The Victoria University School of Architecture also showed interest in the concept. A masters student presented a design package for home safety combining security, fire prevention and design principles for accident prevention.

ACC statistics for 1984 identified 19% of its compensation payouts for home accidents compared with only 12% for road accidents. The proportionate difference between the two is expected to get wider. Health statistics show a greater and more rapidly increasing cost to the community (approaching $NZ100 million) for home accidents than from any other cause.

Professional groups attending the Safe House ’86 seminars endorsed the potential for significant monetary savings to the community if basic concepts of barrier free design are introduced as standard practice into the private home. Design principles relating vehicle access directly to floor level and entrances, the detailing of level thresholds, kitchen layout and storage location and the construction of wet area showers are some examples with the potential to reduce the risk of personal injury by accident in the home.

The largest home building operation in NZ, the Government’s Housing Corporation, has already adopted "Safe House" principles in their "Granny Flat" design. A private home construction company in NZ (Marshall Homes) are using the "Safe House" design concept as their major marketing thrust. The NZ Standards Association are considering a new code of practice for "safe" housing design as a result of the Safe House ’86 programme. Support for the model has been very encouraging. Future endorsement by popular demand will be the ultimate gauge of acceptability for the proposal presented here. However the need for researched evidence to validate the theory remains a priority.


We have now traced NZ’s planned 20 year progress in developing a barrier free environment. It is significant that the initiative to reach the current level of thinking and development has come from a minority user group rather than the professional educators, researchers and practitioners. The sustained level of achievement is attributed to the determination and perseverance of a few dedicated and informed individuals backed by a growing number of professionals.

We must acknowledge the vital support and co-operation of the agencies and organisations mentioned in the paper. Their assistance with the provision of enlightened personnel at critical stages has demonstrated how New Zealanders can maintain a team effort over an extended period for the good of the community.

We seek ongoing close liaison with people throughout the world embarking on or making progress with similar initiatives.


Hislop, J., Dowland and Hickling, J., Health Facts - New Zealand, Wellington, Management Services and Research Unit, Department of Health, 1983.

Kliment, Stephen A., Into the Mainstream: A Syllabus for a Barrier Free Environment, American Institute of Architects and Rehabilitation Services Administration, Department of Health, Education and Welfare, Washington, D.C., 1976.

McBride, T.J., Enforcement of Human Rights Legislation, Report of a Seminar on Human Rights, NZ Human Rights Commission, Wellington, 1979.

Disabled Persons Community Welfare Act 1975, Government Printing Office, Wellington, 1975.

Pope, Campbell, Barrier Free Housing, Series of 7 pamphlets, NZ Crippled Children Society and NZ Accident Compensation Corporation, Wellington, 1983.

Pope, Campbell, Safe House ’86 Design Issues and Guidelines, NZ Crippled Children Society, Wellington, 1986.

Public Works Canada, Barrier Free Design: Access to Use of Buildings by Physically Disabled People, Minister of Supply and Services, Ottawa, 1985.

Rehabilitation International, Charter for the ’80s, R.I.N.Z., Wellington, 1981.

Sanders, Jenny, Who Needs a Safe Home?, Paper presented to Safe House ’86 Seminars, Accident Compensation Corporation, Wellington, 1986.

Saxby, J.N., Dwellings for the Elderly: A Design Guide, Housing Corporation, Wellington, 1981.

Standards Association of NZ, Code of Practice for Design for Access and of Buildings and Facility Used by Disabled Persons, NZS 4121:1985, Wellington, 1985.

Wrightson, Bill and Johns, Jillian, Safe House ’86: Seminars’ Report, NZ Crippled Children Society, Wellington, 1986.

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