In February 2005, France adopted a law making it mandatory for cities to create a living environment adapted to people with disabilities by making urban areas accessible to all within 10 years. However, the additional time granted and the leniency shown due to difficulties cities faced in meeting the established deadlines have greatly brought down the initial goal.
How to design a welcoming city for people with disabilities Fifteen years later, the goal remains the same, but the approaches have evolved. Methods focused solely on the technical compliance of the buildings, public spaces and public transport are no longer the trend. The various players’ approach is now that of an inclusive city: working to make urban spaces and services accessible to all, without restrictions. They aim to meet all of the population’s needs and wants, and to give them a central role in governance processes, regardless of any constraints they may have or of their physical or cognitive abilities. In other words, the goal is to lift all urban and social obstacles which could prevent some citizens from participating in the life of the community.
This is no small task, as people with disabilities suffer from various forms of exclusion. In 2015, according to the Defender of Rights, having a disability was the second cause of employment discrimination. A city’s structure and organization may amplify some of the constraints and reduced capacities of people with disabilities.
Limits to universal accessibility
For a long time, the response took the form of equipment or adjustments aiming to eliminate the disabling conditions according to a principle of universality — of making everything accessible. This approach, however, has shown its limits, as can be seen in the housing regulations. Accessibility standards (1) (hallway and door width adjustments enabling people in wheelchairs to move freely and use the entirety of a home by themselves) take up an estimated 5 square meters of space per apartment: while commendable, the original intention of adapting to everyone has proven to be inadequate for some users. In fact, these standards themselves do not guarantee accessibility for all and must often go hand-in-hand with adjustments to adapt the home to the specific needs of its users (colour codes for people with visual impairments, a doorbell for people with hearing impairments, a walk in shower and grab bars for people with reduced mobility, etc.) Within this framework, in 2018, the ELAN law confirmed the mandatory accessibility of 20% of new housing units for people with disabilities rather than 100%, with the remaining 80% able to be easily adjusted through works, at a low cost. This legislative development was criticized by some organisations defending the rights of people with disabilities, but invites us to rethink our approaches.
Diversity in disabilities
It is not uncommon to think of the word “disability” as a one-size-fits-all term, forgetting that in fact, it covers a wide range of realities and situations. A disability can affect hearing, vision or mobility, or a person’s mental, psychological or cognitive capacities. In everyday life, this can mean difficulties getting oriented in an unfamiliar environment, communicating, reading or climbing stairs. In France, an estimated 2.75 million adults present functional limitations, with 1.86 million experiencing reduced mobility(2). This data includes neither children (over 350,000 students with disabilities have been reported in a survey by the Ministry of National Education) nor people who will face a loss of autonomy, such as seniors, whose numbers are going to increase.
Agile, service-oriented solutions able to adapt to various needs and contexts
For all of these people, cities sometimes rhyme with constraints and exclusion when they should, on the contrary, become sources of opportunities, namely thanks to their capacity for service provision. And if “accessibility was a service rather than an array of equipment”, as Brice Dury pictured in his report for the Prospect and Public Dialogue Division of Greater Lyon(3), it would combine help from people, equipment and digital tools to offer the right solution at the right time through an intelligent design meant to be both “for everyone” and customisable. For example, when going grocery shopping, a person with a disability could have access to a movable ramp system at the building’s entrance, an in-store pick-up service to pre-order their groceries, an app informing her or him of the products in store, employee assistance (to read labels, get around the store, etc.) and volunteer-based home delivery.
Inclusive solutions to benefit everyone
These solutions should, where possible, benefit the greatest number of people in order to avoid further division between people with disabilities and the rest of society. The Wegoto app enables a search for the best-adapted itinerary without obstacles based on the user’s profile (cyclist, person with reduced mobility, person with a visual or hearing impairment, etc.), making it a universal, non-discriminatory and non-stigmatizing tool which favours sustainable transport.
A change of perspective: designing a city by walking in the shoes of all its users
To move towards this ideal, the players involved are using new methods to go off the beaten tracks of the urban fabric. Among these methods is the “inclusive design”, which entails learning from the various handicaps or constraints in order to improve the interface of a service, piece of equipment or adjustment and include a maximum number of users. There is no shortage of experiments, as evidenced by an initiative in the city of Basel, in Switzerland, beautifully named “Les Yeux à 1,20 m” (eyes 1.20 m off the ground). Its goal is to encourage the players involved in urban planning to take children into account when designing public spaces. At the “Kinderbüro” (children’s office), children co-design the development projects (redeveloping a street, designing a new school, etc.) and are involved in the democratic process. The results are summarized in a guide which takes the form of a perforated 1.20 m measuring stick, to see the space from a child’s height. A similar idea could be applied to other profiles in order to identify their challenges as users. The urban rhythm could be questioned, for example, by taking into account the acceleration of our life rhythms compared with the slower pace of people facing difficulties to get around.
Giving people with disabilities the capacity to act, design and decide
These approaches have the additional advantage of placing users in a legitimate role that is often forgotten: that of experts in their own everyday lives. They know better than anyone what constraints, needs or obstacles they face. The various players must have users walk them through these, and together, they can design the most appropriate responses. Such is the approach of an experiment by the InControl association in the United Kingdom regarding allocations for seniors and people with disabilities. The association partnered with the authorities to create a service enabling beneficiaries to dispose of their allocations themselves and divide them between the different services to which they would like to subscribe. The services chosen by the beneficiaries were relatively different from the standard offer and focused heavily on leisure activities promoting “well-being”. It is a successful example of empowerment.
(1) Le grand flou des logements « accessibles » aux handicapés, Anne-Aël Durand, Le Monde, June 2018
(2) Health and disability survey, DREES and Insee, 2008-2009
(3) Ville et handicap : en finir avec « l’accessibilité », 2011