Independent Living Institute


Micro vs. Macro Planning

by Adolf D. Ratzka, Ph.D.

Historically, people with disabilities have been isolated and shut off from society in the form of micro solutions, i.e. solutions specifically and exclusively geared to this group. Examples are special kindergartens, special schools, sheltered workshops, institutions and special housing, special and therefore segregated transportation systems.

Our present cities are full of micro solutions. Planners and politicians in many countries build segregated housing facilities for people with disabilities and will proudly show these ghettoes to foreign visitors. City planners will construct one accessible housing complex or shopping street and use this as an alibi for leaving the rest of the city inaccessible.

Micro solutions are characterized by the generous use of the international symbol of access: one accessible phone booth in a row of inaccessible ones, one accessible public toilet within several city blocks. The international symbol of access shows me that only here am I welcome. Black people in South Africa must have had similar feelings when they saw park benches with signs "For Blacks". In a micro world people with disabilities are made dependent on the limited choices that architects and planners consider sufficient for them. In a micro society disabled people will be reminded at literally every step of the limits that somebody else has imposed on them. Micro solutions represent accessible islands in an otherwise inaccessible ocean. Outside these islands people with disabilities appear helpless and are made to feel helpless.

In Stockholm for example, over 95 per cent of the housing stock is inaccessible to people who cannot climb one or more steps. And Stockholm is probably one of the better cities. Look around and you will see how the physical environment segregates and excludes citizens with disabilities from active participation in all aspects of life. Apartheid is rampant - not only in South Africa but in most countries on this globe.

The effects of architectural barriers are twofold. They affect the daily lives of most of us at one point or another, and they serve as a mechanism by which some of us are selected for an existence in institutions or other segregated facilities. We know that most individuals whom a handicapping environment forces into institutions would prefer to live in the community, if given a real choice. Institutions, because of their need for well-functioning routines, limit the inmates' choices and responsibilities over their own lives. The result is known as hospitalism - decreasing competence in practical tasks and social skills, low self-confidence and stunted personal growth regardless of age.

The prospect of life in segregated facilities is a powerful incentive for many old and disabled persons to hold out in inaccessible environments at the price of physical overexertion, risk of accidents and premature loss of functional abilities. The physical and mental energy spent on coping with our inaccessible cities, the imposed restrictions in life style, occupational and social opportunities are costs borne not only by disabled people, their families and friends but by all citizens.

Inaccessible environments not only discriminate against us in very concrete ways, they also affect us in more subtle ways. Thus, an image of environmental incompetence can easily affect other aspects of one's personality with the result that a disability limited to one aspect of a person is associated with global incompetence in all areas. An example: Assume that you as the employer are interviewing a job applicant for a staff position. Your office can be reached via a flight of steps only. The job applicant is a wheelchair user and has to be carried upstairs. In this situation, is it not likely that the applicant's helplessness in climbing stairs might also affect your assessment of his or her mental abilities? And is it not possible that a person who all his life is made dependent on other people at every step will begin to see himself dependent on other people also in other respects? For the people around us and even for ourselves it is not always clear that the problem is not within us, is not because we are incompetent and passive, but because architects, planners and politicians deny us our equal rights.

In a macro world, on the other hand, that is, a society designed for all citizens, building and planning will enable disabled people to participate in every aspect of society. Preconceived steretype notions about people with disabilities will diminish as the general population gets to know us on an individual level, as unique individuals. In a macro society there will be no need for the international symbol of access because people with disabilities will be considered as equal citizens and everything will be accessible to them.