A different perspective on accessible construction

Is the access ramp too steep? Do two centimeters really make a difference when it comes to a threshold? Architects and city planners are always confronted with these types of questions. If they don’t have any impairments themselves, they tend to quickly render the wrong verdict. This is why construction decision makers, who can assess barriers based on their own experience, are in great demand.


"Accessibility is often only synonymous with accessible for wheelchairs," says Dirk Michalski, who emphasizes accessible construction in his work as an architect and technical expert. "Yet visually impaired, blind and deaf persons need to also be considered for example." This is why there needs to be consulting and education on what constitutes barriers and how they can be avoided during construction or retrofitted.
Photo: Accessible shower

Accessible showers are more and more becoming a norm; © Dirk Michalski

Accessibility is undergoing change

Michalski, who has been in a wheelchair for the past 30 years, knows that expansive knowledge is needed when you want to setup or newly construct a medical office for instance. Aside from wheelchair users, you also need to consider small persons, visually impaired people or people using rolling walkers for example. Yet Michalski also knows about the widespread reservation of accessible construction being generally considered too expensive and elaborate. However, if you build in an accessible manner from the start, you typically only incur minor additional expenses.

"Today, elevators for instance are a matter of course in many buildings, because people realized that they are convenient and offer many benefits to everyone," says Michalski. He also notices this trend in the construction of accessible showers, which – compared to ten years ago – are becoming the norm.

The architect views his own disability as a clear advantage: "Clients place considerable trust in me because of it." He concedes that pedestrians simply cannot know certain things when it comes to wheelchair accessible situations. "Yet when it comes to visual and hearing impairments, I also need to look closely into the subject," says Michalski. "The experience and communication with affected persons is therefore always essential."

Besides Michalski, also Barbara Sima-Ruml is somewhat skeptical towards experts in their own field. The wheelchair user works as a technical expert in accessible construction for the Styria (Steiermark) region of Austria. She believes that you should always pay close attention to which you consult as an expert. "Many people, who often lack construction training, can usually only attest to their own needs and have no general knowledge of accessibility and what other persons with disabilities require," Sima-Ruml points out.
Photo: Dirk Michalski and Barbara Sima-Ruml

Dirk Michalski and Barbara Sima-Ruml are not only experts on accessible construction. Both also use a wheelchair; © Dirk Michalski/privat

Changing perspectives

Both Sima-Ruml and Michalski recommend that engineers and architects without disabilities use a wheelchair themselves for a certain amount of time. After all, when you only have a theoretical approach to things you usually only scratch the surface. "Planners for instance often believe that two centimeters on a threshold don’t make a difference or that an access ramp is not steep. Yet when they try this out themselves, they are surprised at how insurmountable even supposed small barriers can be," says Michalski.

Sima-Ruml is also able to confirm this: "I believe, experiencing things on your own has virtually always stood the test of time and is a real Aha! experience for many planners. In collaboration with several institutions, we were able to present many seminars on raising awareness for this subject. Life with a disability was discussed with a nearly blind person for instance and then put to a field test. Most participants determined that it is a lot harder to find your way as a blind person with a white cane than being in a wheelchair."

Both Sima-Ruml and Michalski agree however that these types of seminars or obstacle courses can only offer a first glimpse at the subject and be a push in the right direction. They do not replace an active exchange with the affected persons.
Photo: Subway station orientation system for blind people

Accessibility does not only mean accessible for wheelchairs, but also includes an orientation system for blind people for example; © Dirk Michalski

Accessibility benefits everyone

Sima-Ruml believes effective, comprehensive training makes sense in the long run. In addition, responsible builders, politicians and entrepreneurs need to finally realize that accessibility is not a concession, but rather a human right. "Aside from wheelchair users, about 30 percent of the population requires an accessible environment."

In the future, wheelchair user and architect Michalski wants people to finally let go of prejudices. "People should recognize accessibility as a convenience – for people with disabilities, parents with strollers, for travelers with suitcases or older people with rolling walkers. Easy-to-read signs also benefit everyone. We finally need to break down the misconception that accessibility is only intended and useful for people with disabilities."
Photo: Nadine Lormis; Copyright: B. Frommann

© B. Frommann

Nadine Lormis
(Translated by Elena O'Meara.)