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Accessibility – Universal Design

On 15 February 2001 – The Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe (Partial Agreement in the Social and Public Health Field) adopted Resolution Res AP (2001) 1 “on the introduction of the principles of universal design into the curricula of all occupations working on the built environment”, which takes a pro-active approach by recommending the incorporation of universal design principles into the curricula of architects, engineers and town planners, and, by and large, into the training of all vocations working on the built environment.

Architectural obstacles and barriers in the built environment still exclude many people with disabilities from full participation in the life of the community - a form of social exclusion that is undoubtedly a denial of basic human rights.

The man-made environment is constructed on the assumption of there being an “average person”. However, there is no standardized person. Since every individual deviates from “the norm” in one way or another (age, height, width, weight, strength, speed, sight, hearing, stamina, mental capacities, etc.), faculties built for the “average person” are not necessarily equally accessible for everybody.

In the past, the problem of accessibility was considered a direct result of the individual’s deviation from “the norm”. The person was the “exception”, hence the “problem”. Following an itemized approach, the most common response to accessibility problems has been to add special facilities to a building, such as ramps or wider doors. This response, however, reinforces the idea that certain individuals are “exceptions to the rule” and stigmatizes them by obliging them to use, for example, separate entrances, often at the rear of the building.

Already the Council of Europe’s Recommendation No. R (92) 6 on a coherent policy for people with disabilities, which promotes their rights to full citizenship, independent living, equal opportunities and full participation, urged member States’ governments to remove all obstacles in the environment and in society to make it possible for people with disabilities to play a full role in the community life.

In the publication Accessibility – Principles and Guidelines (1993) the Council of Europe promotes the concept of integrated accessibility. The text presents the fundamental principles of that concept and offers guidelines for solutions.

The new integrated approach including Universal Design aims to respond equally to the needs of everyone. Everyone should be able to enter and use any part of the built environment as independently and naturally as possible. The criteria defining “normality” should be enlarged to ensure that the construction of the built environment is based on universal design. A new awareness of design and construction is needed.

The Resolution aims at improving the accessibility and usability of the built environment for all by, according to the principle of early intervention, following the pro-active approach of addressing the cause rather than the symptom.

Consequently it tries to improve the education and training of architects, engineers, town planners, and all other relevant professions and occupations working on or with the built environment.

Universal Design is neither taught at many European universities or schools of architecture, engineering and design, nor practiced by many European architects, engineers, designers, or town planners.

Thus, the aim of this Resolution is to ensure that the education and training of all occupations working on the built environment be inspired by the principles of universal design.

The Resolution is directly addressed to Governments of member states, having due regard to their specific constitutional structures, national, regional or local circumstances, as well as education systems.

It thus respects the autonomy of higher education institutions in designing their curricula and study programmes

The Resolution takes as a starting point the right of all individuals, including persons with disabilities, to full participation in the life of the community, which involves the right to access, use and understand all parts of the built environment.

It recognises the responsibility and duty of society, and in particular of all occupations working on the built environment, to make it universally accessible to everyone, including persons with disabilities.

Universal Design is a strategy which aims to make the design and composition of the different environments accessible and understandable to, as well as usable by, everyone, to the greatest extent in the most independent and natural manner possible, without the need for adaptation or specialised design solutions.

The intent of the universal design concept is to simplify life for everyone by making the built environment more accessible, usable and understandable at little or no extra cost.

It promotes a shift to more emphasis on user-centred design by following a holistic approach and aiming to accommodate the needs of people of all ages, sizes, and abilities, including the changes the people experience over their lifespan.

Consequently, universal design is a concept that extends beyond the issues of mere accessibility of buildings for people with disabilities.

It should become an integrated part of architecture, design and planning of the environment.

The concept of universal design should be an integral and compulsory part of the mainstream initial training of all occupations working on the built environment, at all levels and in all sectors.

These areas cover higher education at under-graduate and post graduate level, as well as continuing education for practicing architects, engineers and town planners.

Since many building projects are carried out without architects or engineers, i.e. by master craftsmen, such as bricklayers or carpenters, also the initial and further vocational training ( apprenticeships ) of these professions should include compulsory training modules on universal design principles.

The perception of  normality  and  difference  should be studied. Positive attitudes towards people with disabilities should be created as early as possible to overcome psychological barriers and to lay the foundations for the removal of architectural barriers.

The Council of Europe will continue to strive for the protection and promotion of human rights and fundamental freedoms by creating barrier-free and inclusive societies in Europe.

For the text of the Resolution click here
For the text of the Resolution and some background information click here