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Report of the Third International Expert Seminar
on Building Non-Handicapping Environments:
Accessibility Issues in Developing Countries

Tokyo, September 10, 1988

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Methodological Issues in Developing Public Non-Handicapping Environments in Japan

Tamako Hayashi, Tokyo Metropolitan Institute of Gerontology, Japan


This seminar’s topic is "Building Non-Handicapping Environments in Developing Countries". Although Japan is the second largest country in the world in terms of GNP, it is still a developing country in terms of building environments which are also accessible to persons with disabilities.

In Japan, a group of disabled persons began the movement for non-handicapping urban environments in the 1970’s. Researchers and administrative bodies have tried to respond to various requirements of persons with disabilities, but such an environment suitable for the independent movement of wheelchair users has never been fully realized in any Japanese city.

Nationwide, design guidelines for public buildings and transportaion is one of the most important requirements for the establishment of an accommodating urban environment for persons with disabilities. This paper reviews the historical development towards non-handicapping environments in Japan and reports the results of a survey on the present situation and concludes with discussing some unsolved problems. I would like to have comments by participants from developed countries and I hope this presentation is of some assistance to those who are tackling the problem now.

Historical Development of Non-Handicapping Environments in Japan

As in many other countries, the establishment of non-handicapping environments in Japan began from a movement by disabled persons seeking to widen their everyday environment. Research and administrative action has resulted in the realization of various aspects of their needs. In 1970, a volunteer and a disabled person met in Sendai City. A volunteer group named "Niji no kai" (Rainbow Group) emerged which aimed at widening the area of daily life for persons with disabilities in cooperation with a group of disabled persons and other citizen groups. Later, as a result of increased participation, the organization was renamed "Citizens for a Welfare City". They asked the city administration to construct public toilets and ramps for wheelchair users. This was the first public attempt to make such improvements.

In 1972, disabled workers at "welfare factories" established a group called "Promoters of a Barrier Free Environment" in Tokyo. A similar movement followed in several other cities: Kooriyama in Fukushima Prefecture, Kyoto, Nishinomiya and Kobe. In 1973, the Welfare and Culture Department of the Asahi Newspaper Corporation sponsored a nationwide meeting of wheelchair users. At this time, the movement for a broader area for daily life evolved into the quest for the right of disabled persons to live a human life. Subsequently, local branches were set up.

In response to these movements, Machida City established design guidelines for buildings for non-handicapping environments. Kyoto, Tokyo, Yokohama, Kobe and others followed. In 1973, the Ministry of Health and Welfare initiated the policy "Model Towns for the Welfare of Physically Disabled Persons".

In 1979, the Ministry changed the policy name to "An Environment of Increased Amenities for Persons with Disabilities". At present, 194 cities and towns participate in the program and various policy measures have been adopted which include: leveling of curbs at crosswalks; introduction of a guidance system for visually disabled persons; and improvement of public facilities and transportations. The program also tries to promote the establishment of organizations and activities that advocate more participaion of disabled persons in social activities.

As to the building design, the Ministry of Construction and others have taken the initiative by publishing various design guidelines. Professor Yasumi Yoshitake, chairman of the Japanese organizing committee for this seminar, has played a leading role in compiling the guidelines "Design of Public Housing for Wheelchair Users and old persons" in 1973, "Design Guidelines for Public Buildings and Transportations with Reference to Disabled Users" in 1976, "Design Guidelines for Japanese Railway Stations for Persons with Disabilities, Especially for the Visually Disabled" in 1977 and "Design Standards for Disabled Users" in 1982. The Ministry of Construction started a special loan program to compensate for the additional costs of buildings designed in accordance with the above stated design standards.

The Present Situation of Building Non-Handicapping Environments in Japan

The historical development of non-handicapping environments in Japan clearly shows that it is necessary to involve many people in its development. Requests by users and volunteers, technical assisance by architects and building engineers and advice on legal and administrative aspects were all needed to realize a better non-handicapping environment.

The Sub-Committee for Non-Handicapping Environments in the Architectural Planning Committee of the Architectural Institute of Japan conducted a survey on the present situation of accessibility in the built environment. A questionnaire was sent to local governments, Prefectures, cities with a population of 100,000 or more and cities with a population of 50,000 or more which participate in the program "Increased Amenities Town for Persons with Disabilities". 301 copies of the questionnaire were sent out and 167 local governments replied. The return rate was 55.1%. Based on the results, problems that occurred during the process of realizing non-handicapping environments and points of further discussion are reported in the summary.

The Establishment of Design Guidelines

Larger cities are more likely to have guidelines. Of cities with a population of 200,000 or over, more than 36 per cent have them. While 27 per cent of the cities with a population between 100,000 and 200,000 also have guidelines, they exist in only 9.5 per cent of the smaller cities. The guidelines have been greatly improved. When the same survey was conducted 9 years ago, only 12 per cent of the cities with a population of over 200,000 had guidelines.

Cities with a special legal status are quite positive in establishing design guidelines and their contents are well defined. This year the Tokyo metropolitan government has revised its previous 1976 guidelines and hopes to unify them. Some of the wards (KU) follow these guidelines, others have different guidelines and still others have no guidelines at all.

Over half of all the county councils did not have any guidelines. They lag far behind and are less enthusiastic in establishing guidelines than the larger cities within their areas.

Methods of Application and Problems

Welfare departments are more likely to be involved in the establishment of guidelines and their enforcement than building departments. This is mainly because the move towards non-handicapping environments was first reflected in the welfare policy measures of local governments. Guidelines are inspected either before applicaion for a building permit or after. The former is a kind of consulation that checks whether accessibility can be realized. In some cases, building officials are involved in the process. In the latter case, the plans and a detailed draft are usually forwarded within the local government from the building department to the welfare department for inspection. For local government buildings, inspecions are usually carried out by building departments, whereas privately owned buildings are inspected by the welfare department.

Non-handicapping environments can be realized only when the area around buildings is well designed, including streets and transportaion facilities. Welfare departments are prepared to investigate this consideration from a wider perspective, but sometimes they lack specialized knowledge about building design. Building departments, on the other hand, are short of the necessary staff to actually conduct an investigation based on a real understanding of the problems of citizens with disabilities. Barrier-free environments must not only be developed through the eyes of an architect but must engulf a comprehensive perspective including transportation facilities, civic considerations, etc. The Ministry of Construction needs the authority to conduct such a thorough investigation.

If no legal measures for enforcement exist, design guidelines are only optional and the consultation process is ignored. Some staff members strongly request legal power for enforcement.

Contents of Guidelines and Their Problems

There are many cases where the guidelines are only applicable to the buildings of local governments. Many local governments exempt privately owned buildings, public housing, schools, railway stations, etc. from legal guidelines. Some local governments have introduced an exemption based on the size of the floor area, but this is not appropriate, since also smaller public buildings need a non-handicapping design.

Most guidelines are oriented towards "how to design" and not "what should be done". Lack of legal enforcement causes building designers to take an indifferent stance concerning the need for non-handicapping environments.

The guidelines are in principle based on how to temporarily use the building. They are not, however, based on the needs of persons with disabilities who actually work in the building. Therefore, more guidelines remain to be desired.

In establishing guidelines, only comments from researchers and users are taken into consideration. Since there is a lack of involvement by designers and contractors, they can not completely understand the guidelines and they do not fully cooperate with them.

The guidelines are mainly for new buildings and for major remodeling. Most existing buildings remain unchanged and a non-handicapping environment can hardly be realized as a total entity.

Problems of Application

Smaller cities complain about cost problems, for the most part, related to elevator installation. Some points need further consideraion such as design specifications of escalators for wheelchair users and the position of wheelchair toilets relative to ordinary toilets. Nationwide uniformity is desired for a guidance system for the visually disabled persons, particularly, the shape of the floor design and their patterns: warning, guiding or indication. Our present guiding system based on music is also not consistent.

Development in The Past 10 Years

Some local governments are revising their guidelines to improve the quality of policy measures. Some of the most significant changes include the increase in the number of electric wheelchair users, the need for more social participation and the emergence of an aging society. The problems of an aging society are not yet clearly defined and differences in needs between wheelchair users and old persons are not yet well understood.

Future Tasks A nationwide uniformity of guidelines is strongly desired by the local government staff. Enforcing standard guidelines throughout Japan and complementing them with local rules in response to respective needs would be a sensible solution.

The involvement of building designers and contractors in the preparation of non-handicapping environments is essential. It is desirable that this be carried out on the basis of a deep understanding of the needs of persons with disabilities by designers and conractors and not only by "administrative guidance" or regulatory measures. It will perhaps be necessary to educate specialists who have a deep understanding in both building design and environmenal needs of persons with disabilities.

Until now, considerations of a barrier-free design for wheelchair users have been far from perfect. The necessity in planning a design for an aging society has also become a problem.

Non-handicapping environments should evolve from specific improvements to general area improvements. Few cities have reached the stage of covering a general area, one that ranges from buildings and parks to streets and transportation facilities. (Kyoto and Kobe have accessible subways.)

Accessibility and usability have been the prime concern of these guidelines. From now on, however, problems of domestic accidents and emergency egress should also be considered.


We would like to remind you again of some of Japan’s future problems. We would appreciate an active discussion concerning the following points.

Uniformity of guidelines: The public sector’s role in considering local characteristics. What are the basic requirements for naion-wide standards?

Dissemination of information: How can the continuity and uniformity of non-handicapping environments be maintained and how can the education of designers and contractors be effective?

New challenging topics are

The International Year of Disabled Persons has stimulated a great drive for the development of non-handicapping environments in Japan. Problems that I have pointed out are common to all counries designing a physical environment based on "full and equal social participation for all." I sincerely hope this seminar will be useful in moving us towards our goal of creating non-handicapping environments.

Accessibility and Integration Based on Patterns of Building and Living

Ramesh Kumar Biswas, Vienna, Austria

Why do architects so often design buildings which they themselves would find difficult to use in their old age? Most buildings are designed by and for healthy young persons, not children, old people and disabled persons. But disablement is not something that happens just to others - it happens to all of us at several stages in our life-cycles. Most of us are completely unaware of what it means to be handicapped in our movements until we grow old. As the result of a traffic accident some years ago I realized for the first time what it meant to be handicapped even if it was "only" for a period of a few months. Half of the period I spent in the developing country where I had the accident and the other half in a country where I had the benefits of advanced institutional care. Having had the opportunity to compare the two, I felt that the practice in developing countries of disabled people living with and being cared for by their families resulted in more integration than in Western counries where there is more institutional care. Oriental philosophies see all problems as interconnected by a dense network of cross-linkages. To try to solve individual problems in an isolated way which is the rationalistic way, often causes unexpected new problems and effects opposite to what was intended. Thus, special facilities for persons with disabilities have often led to even greater isolation. In the specific case of the built environment it is clear that the problems of persons with disabilities are aspects of a larger disequilibrium.

In trying to recognize what is ’enabling’ and what is ’disabling’ in traditional surroundings in developing countries the local patterns of living and patterns of building are of paramount importance. Rather than planning technical measures, such as lifts or automatic doors, to alleviate inconveniences caused by thoughtless building, design should be based on these patterns. Technically-based measures are uneconomical and inappropriate in developing countries. I submit that the basis for design should be the observation and adaptation of existing patterns of building and living, some of which are described below.

Clearly persons with disabilities and the aged can not be integrated socially until they are first integrated physically. On the larger scale one sees that the mixed use of working, living and social functions as well as the easy reach of the work place on foot are characteristic of traditional settlements. In the newly urbanized areas in developing countries motorized transport as well as the accompanying insurmountable roads cause barriers.There should be no separate access la Radburn (due to the waste of land) but combined access with narrow streets and slow speeds. The streets and squares must have pockets of activity at their edges which make it natural for people to pause and get involved. Planning on the larger scale for new settlements or the adaptation of existing ones must institute and reinforce mixed use, high density, decentralized and dispersed medical nursing and therapeutical services within the area.

Much more important is design on the small scale. Traditional verandahs and platforms outside houses act as intermediate zones between private and public and are places where the old and persons with disabilities sit, communicate and become part of the life around them. Apart from the climatic functions of such superstrucural elements, they serve the purpose of integration in society.

According to climatic region, low open windows and balconies also serve this function. Modern housing hardly ever has these elements, though I have seen cases where they have been added by the residents. How can we best incorporate them in design?

The guides to designing these elements in modern housing would be governed by their actual measurements and placing in traditional housing. But we could also decide their situation and distance from each other based on optical and audial measurements acquired through actual experiments. That is, the distances between the front doors, between the street and entrances, between windows should be based on the optimal distances within which one can carry on conversations, call for help if necessary, keep an eye on children and call them from an upper-story flat, see the expressions on a neighbor’s face etc., with appropriate adjustments for local cultural concepts of privacy and socializing.

Public buildings are often rather unfriendly - they do not generally invite the public in. They do not create the possibility of a connecion with the public world outside; they operate essentially as private territory for the people who are inside. This is due to the lack of strong connections and realms of space that are ambiguously a part of the building as well as of the purely public world outside. One classic solution to this problem is the arcade which creates a multifunctional territory between the public and the private world, thus improving access. But to be successful, it must become a place and not just a corridor, it must connect to the inside through many doors, windows and half open walls, then people are drawn into the building. If arcades are further connected and interlinked; sheltered, traffic-free movement between buildings is possible and much of the business of the town then actually takes place in them. Indeed, Bernard Rudofsky claims that such space takes the place of the ancient forum or meeting square. Their function goes far beyond providing shelter against the elements or protecting pedestrians from traffic.

There are other means which dissolve the barriers between streets and buildings and make the transition between them easier, for example, pergole, awnings sometimes stretching across the whole street, tent-like structures or permanent roofs. These are characteristic of the Orient or Western countries with an Oriental heritage. Sheltered openings and balconies play an important role; if the actual users of the buildings can not look out from balconies and terraces towards public outdoor spaces around the building, they do not have a medium which helps them to feel the interwining of public life and their own life. Vision and contact act as stimuli engendering action within the scope of the disabled spectator.

The way buildings are conceptually organized decide how accessible they are. Too many institutional buildings are monolithic and undifferentiated, give an impression of inaccessibility and disorientation and people working there are seen as personnel instead of as persons. A building can not be human unless it is a complex of still smaller buildings or smaller parts which manifest its own internal social facts. For psychological reasons, a building should be broken down into its component parts to enable more human contact between the people who work in it and between them and the outside world. And for practical reasons each of these component parts or autonomous departments can be more easily accessible directly from the street or a court rather than through a central entrance and long corridors. Access is thus made easier for the blind and for persons with physical disabilities. This means circulation should be externalized, not internalized. The climate in most developing countries allows this. Where it does not, access can be from covered public thoroughfares. The collection of small buildings which are components of the whole can then be reconnected by arcades, paths, bridges and ramps.

Legibility and orientation are important aspects of public buildings. A building which is easy to understand is also easy to use, for the blind as well as for everybody else. To move around in a building it should be possible to make a mental map of it. Therefore it should have a system of realms which are easily identifiable and familiar, such as courtyard, entrance, stairs, rooms. We have been talking about making life easier for persons with physical disabiliies, but familiarity and orientation have a special relevance for the mentally disabled.

Shopping should take the form of traditional bazaars - small shops consisting of small rental spaces should be planned instead of big centralized shopping centres. Shops should be directly accessible from the street and not in internalized multi-storied buildings.

I also believe that the choice of construction materials has an influence on how ’friendly’ the building is to disabled people. Here I suggest two opposite approaches to designing housing and public buildings. Houses should not be built specifically for disabled people, but should have a wide scope for adaptability and transformaion by the residents. Public buildings on the other hand, offices, cinemas, etc. should be built with the assumption that they will be constantly used by disabled and old people and children and should be careful in detail and generous in concept. Recognizing the fact that it is neither possible nor desirable to design all housing units for one or the other type of disablement, the most practical and economical approach is to design normal houses which are built of materials which can be worked by the residents without much skilled labor.

Ramps, openings, access and circulation can be cut in modified or added to. People who are disabled temporarily or permanently due to an accident could continue to live in the same house and within the same community rather than being forced to move out. But buildings of relatively ’high-tech’ materials, such as concrete and steel, are usually never adapted because of the high technical skills, cost and the unresponsive administrative structure involved. This is especially relevant to new institutional buildings, which should avoid the prestigious or monumental modes which are hostile, not only to disabled users. I am talking about the use of tradiional and ecologically acceptable materials like mud and timber, but I suggest we also turn an eye to the so-called ’slums’ in developing countries and learn a lesson from them. There, available materials (someimes waste materials) are used, combined, modified and exchanged as the need may be. This gives them a degree of flexibility that most pre-planned buildings do not have. It is a pracical means of improving accessibility cheaply. The use of low-cost materials and methods of construction also means that easy and generous access facilities for everybody can be afforded instead of small, separate access features for persons with disabilities. When separate features are provided only for persons with disabilities, they often add to their psychological isolation in their own eyes and those of society. This is yet another aspect that should be investigated and understood in depth in order to ensure the greatest measure of access and integration for persons with disabilities and the aged, as well as to ensure non-handicapping environments for everyone.


Q.: How can disabled persons have access to upper story flats in the absence of elevaors?

A.: Disabled or old people are carried up by other people, a soluion which encroaches on their independence, but is realistic and economical in the light of actual conditions. However, building heights should be limited to the recommended four stories - which also allows the ability to maintain audial and visual contact with the street and with neighbors.

Q.: What are the possibilities for moving about in the streets for people with reduced mobility?

A.: Many road surfaces are not suitable for wheelchairs. Common means of transport for those not independently mobile are hand-drawn or animal-drawn carts, as well as cycle rickshaws.

Speaking about the relative costs of the proposed approach to building a barrier-free environment, Mr. Biswas suggested that apart from the obvious savings brought about by the use of low-cost materials and their adaptability by unskilled labor, there are advantages at a macro-economic level. Decisions can be made and carried out at the community or household level, rather than by centralized bureaucratic agencies; and investment in the production, installation and maintainance of ’high-tech’ gadgetry of a doubtful or inappropriate nature can be avoided.

Reflecting about what he had observed during his short stay in Japan, Mr. Biswas qualified his statements on traditional design. Although he recommends the adaptation and use of traditional building patterns, he said he was reminded once again in Japan of the need to be selective, for not all traditional ways of building are helpful to disabled people. He quoted the very high (up to 60 cm!) thresholds at the entrances to many temples and other old buildings that were built ostensibly to keep evil spirits out.

Door-openings were not only too high below, they were also built too low above, Mr. Biswas reported. Partly adjusted to the height of people of earlier generations, they were also meant to force people to show respect while entering a home by forcing them to bow, according to his informants. "Though it escapes me why respect has to be constantly shown while moving about in the house, even while entering the toilet", he commented. He also mentioned that he had noticed younger Japanese (not to speak of visitors from abroad) rubbing their heads after entering a room or leaving a train. In his view, this particular traditional pattern can hardly be called an example of a barrier-free environment.

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