Whether people with or without disabilities, whether young or old – buildings with accessibility provide benefits for everyone in society. But reality still looks different. The argument that accessible construction is too expensive is often put on the table, but it only partially reflects the truth. When accessibility is taken into account in construction from the beginning, there are barely any additional costs.
This result also forms the foundation for the "Accessible Construction Guidelines" issued by the German Federal Ministry for Environment, Nature Conservation, Building and Nuclear Safety (in German: Bundesministerium für Umwelt, Naturschutz, Bau und Reaktorsicherheit), BMUB. In the preface, Dr. Barbara Hendricks, the Federal Minister of Environment, Nature Conservation, Building and Nuclear Safety describes the purpose of the guidelines: "As the awarding authority, the federal government has committed to building in an entirely accessible manner. Accessible construction means building for everyone, including persons with motor, visual and auditory as well as cognitive impairments. Accessible buildings need to be easy to find, easy to access and especially easy to use. This applies to new construction and existing buildings as well as their improvements and outdoor facilities."
The author continues by stating the existing guidelines are intended to support the work of the federal and state planning commissions, builders, production designers, architects and users of other public buildings and workplaces – hence everyone, who wants to build in an accessible manner. The comprehensive guidelines state what precisely should be considered when it comes to accessibel construction. "With the help of detailed applications and a sample project, it becomes clear what universal design means and what individual, real-world solutions can look like," Hendricks continues.
The public transport system (ÖPNV) in Vienna, Austria, demonstrates how well accessibility can work in the public domain, believes Dirk Michalski. "Aside from wheelchair users getting around easily, Vienna also features a smart guidance system for the blind. In addition, both the stations as well as the surrounding areas are well constructed."
The wheelchair user, architect and expert in accessible construction found out that even Barcelona is not as far along as Vienna is. "Barcelona implemented accessible construction quite early on. Back then, it was a good thing. But today’s demands have increased to where previous buildings no longer meet today’s requirements."
According to Barbara Sima-Ruml, there is no real market for expert planners in Austria at the moment. "This is primarily due to the fact that the transitional period for comprehensive accessibility, which in theory should take place starting January 1, 2016 according to the Austrian Disability Anti-Discrimination Law, is not over yet," says the authorized expert in accessible construction at the Styria state government office. "Having said that, the Economic Chamber also recommends so-called expert planners, which from my personal point of view don’t always have the right qualifications, leading to a corresponding poor acceptance of results." Hence, there is still plenty of room for improvement.
The fact that universal design is still very limited is something wheelchair user Christoph Rieker can also attest to from his own experience. He believes this is in part due to the high costs of renovations, since there was typically no accessible design planned from the beginning. Yet lack of experience also contributes to this. "Due to the number of potential physical disabilities it is clearly difficult to amass comprehensive knowledge. So there is a subsequent lack of necessary contacts, who assist construction companies and architects in their designs."
Wheelchair users keep experiencing this during their vacations for instance. "When you vacation in a supposed accessible hotel and roll into the bathroom with your wheelchair, not being able to look into the mirror because it is mounted too high, you quickly realize the many details that need to be considered. When you want to move onto the balcony for instance and the threshold is too high, there are still more barriers to overcome."
Added to this is that although buildings are often at grade and therefore wheelchair accessible, a guidance system for the blind was omitted. Yet, accessible construction means more than just providing wheelchair access. "As an affected person, your own situation can open your eyes to things you won’t find in any construction standards," says Rieker. "When I am asked for advice, my answer is not off topic. Other people with disability and I are subsequently able to provide more authentic advice than someone, who doesn’t have a physical disability."
Whether it’s a hotel at a vacation destination or administrative offices and other publicly accessible buildings in your own town, accessible buildings are not just beneficial for people with disabilities. Now it is up to the responsible federal and state planning boards to take this all in and design and build accordingly.