The accessibility culture: methods and solutions for all

 In Accessibilty

“The concept of disability has deeply changed in the last twenty years. Yesterday, the ‘disabled’ concept implied a person with physical, sensorial or mental impairment. Today we have a new awareness. It is based on the concept that the ‘disability condition’ is the result of the interactions between a person and the environment in which she/he moves, works, studies, have leisure time, etc. in a specific moment”.“The concept of disability has deeply changed in the last twenty years. Yesterday, the ‘disabled’ concept implied a person with physical, sensorial or mental impairment. Today we have a new awareness. It is based on the concept that the ‘disability condition’ is the result of the interactions between a person and the environment in which she/he moves, works, studies, have leisure time, etc. in a specific moment”. With these few simple words, prof. Alessandro Greco opened the seminar on “Accessible buildings for an accessibility culture: methods and solutions for all”. The event took place on May 6th, 2016 in the Museum of Electric Technology, in Pavia (Italy). The seminar was organized by the University of Pavia – Civil engineering and architecture department (professor’s Greco1 department), in cooperation with the Order of Engineers and the Order of Architects of the Province of Pavia.“This is a topical subject – underlined Greco – It is a topical subject because of the special attention we have been paying in the last years to the school buildings. Accessibility is a topical subject because is such an important issue. The 2006 UN ‘Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities’ states that the right to education and to an independent and safe life for all people, regardless of their abilities”. The speakers were: Ph.D. ing. Valentina Giacometti (Dipartimento di Ingegneria Civile ed Architettura – Sezione di Architettura e Territorio – Università di Pavia); prof. Alberto Arenghi (Dipartimento Ingegneria Civile – Università di Brescia); Simone Fanti (giornalista e blogger – RCS MediaGroup) and your reporter Fabio Liberali, representing Elevatori.

Greco, the debate moderator, introduced the concept of “accessibility cultural revolution”. The key concept is that the word is not made of “normal persons” and “disabled persons”. Those having sensorial impairments (sight, hearing, etc.) or physical impairments (difficulties to walk and/or move depending form different causes) are not a world apart and they do not necessarily coincide with “people on a wheel chair”. Then the solution is to think and enact the “accessibility for all” concept. Considering steps or the absence of a lift as an architectural barrier represents a restrictive approach. The built environment accessibility must be declined in terms of “environmental comfort”. It is not just the matter of remove the physical obstacles. The matter is also – and most of all – the capability to create an environment enabling the (temporarily or permanently) impaired people to move safely and autonomously. Valentina Giacometti (Accessible universities and museums: form the analysis to the project) started form this last point. She introduced the “universal design” and the “design-for-all” concepts. Such approach is based on seven main principles to design buildings, products and environments that are accessible to all people, regardless the presence of impairments or not:

  • I equitable use: usable by people with diverse abilities;
  • II flexibility in use: accommodates different abilities.;
  • III simple and intuitive: easy to understand and use;
  • IV perceptible information: communicates necessary sensorial information;
  • V tolerance for error: minimizes hazards and accidental or unintended actions;
  • VI low physical effort: used with a minimum fatigue;
  • VII size and space for approach and use: regardless of user’s body size, posture, or mobility.

“The seven main principles to design buildings are more and more important if referred to the ‘significant buildings’. Regardless the fact if they are subject or not to historical, archaeological or environmental constraints, they undoubtedly represent a precious space for the entire society. These buildings must be accessible to the majority of people, regardless their psychophysical condition (…). These people have very different exigencies and expectations. It is not by chance that whenever carrying out interventions on buildings or on the environment, we adopt the so-called ‘amplified usability’ concept. This implies that we must take into consideration the elderly, the children, those who had an accident or all those that for any reason have a sensorial or physical impairment”2.Professor Alberto Arenghi started his presentation form this exact point. In his speech (The accessibility to cultural heritage) he presented the project he developed for the Fourth Cell of the Republican Sanctuary in Brescia (I century AD). The structure, together with the Capitolium (73 AD), the Theatre (I-III century AD) and the remains of the Roman Forum is the nucleus of ancient Brixia. This is the most important complex of ruins and public building from the Roman age, in Northern Italy. The area (4.200 sq. m) has undergone a two-year long restoration and enhancement project, which was coordinated by City of Brescia, by the Lombardy Region Archeologic Authority and by Brescia Musei Foundation. The aim was to make the whole area available and accessible (also through a lifting platform): an historical complex that spans through many centuries form the Pre-Roman age to Italian Renaissance. On the basis of the Ministry guidelines, Arlenghi explained that often – wrongly – it is believed that the elimination of architectural barriers is not allowed in historical buildings, because such intervention (ramps, lifts, etc.) might damage the historical and artistic features of the structure. As a matter of fact, the Ministry might deny the approval only in the case that such interventions might provoke a “serious damage”.

“Before and after the Expo: Is Milan more accessible?” This is the staring question asked by Simone Fanti, a well-known journalist on a wheelchair.His presented the Milan accessibility cahiers de doléances. He listed a large number of thinks – or better, a list of things to be done – which included among the others:

  • public buses are all accessible, but drivers are not trained to manage impaired people and ofet the lift platform are out of order and not repaired;
  • the underground is not fully accessible (only Line 3 and 5 are fully accessible) and the starilifts in stations are very delicate and keep on causing accessibility problems (a telephone number is available to know the real status of such devices);
  • trams have very reduced accessibility, most of all the older ones;
  • shops and offices are rarely accessible.

Despite this situation, Fanti said that: “On December 8th 2015, the European Union awarded Milan the ‘Access city award 2016’. The city has been awarded the recognition due to its ‘excellent and coherent’ efforts to provide accessibility and for the efforts carried out in order to promote the employment of disabled people and to sustain independent living”. Apart from the negative data about the Expo city, he also provided a number of good news. The municipality increased by 35% the resources for services to people: from €157 to €212 million: 25 million of which for accessibility, 25 more on other specific interventions and further 43 as annual contribution to deliver services and support to disabled people. Milan has now 115 full accessible bus lines and 24 new taxis, equipped with platforms. Some important areas around Central Station have been completely refurbished and a new lift has been installed to link the underground mezzanine to the train level.Looking at Expo 2015, Fanti highlighted that Expofacile.it web site had some 250,000 visitors and 660,000 visualized pages, during the six-month long event. The site was specially developed to provide specific services for the disable people and those with special needs. More than 20,000 visitors used the telephone service and the “Info Point Disabilità Expofacile”.

Unworthily called to join the panel of experts, your reporter presented a speech entitled “Accessibility: a right and a resource”. Some main data to introduce the subject. Society has changed. The age pyramid has changed. Soon the “silver foxes” will be more than 25% of total European population. Unluckily, disabilities increase together with ageing. There is a neyt correlation between age and disability: between 60 and 64 it is more probable to develop some kind of health or disability problem. Today, 75 million Europeans are older than 65 and they will represent 35% of total population by 2025. According to CENSIS (Italian Statistical Institute), in Italy we have four million citizens with some form of disability (4,1% of total population). This figure is expected to reach 4.8 million (7.9%) in 2020 and to grow up to 6.7 million (10.7%), in 2040. In our country we have some one million lifts in service, About 205 of them are older than 20 years and some 40% has been running up and down for 30 years or more. Some 700,000 lifts have been installed before 1999, meaning that they are not equipped with modern technologies and accessibility devices. Bad car/floor levelling,  lack of automatic doors and lack of bidirectional communication device in lift car are the major cause of accidents among users. Easy to imagine that the first victims might be the elderly.The opportunity derives from accessible tourism. According to the report presented by the European Commission at the beginning of the year, in 2012, the accessible tourism generated a turnover of €786 billion and 9 million new jobs. This was possible even in spite of the fact that just 9% of the European touristic structures are completely accessible (one only datum as an example: in Italy only 39% of the hotel has a lift, a platform lift or a stairlift)! Because of such these deficiencies, the loos of possible gains is esteemed at €142 billion a year. Accessible tourism is on a fast growing trend. According to the EU, by 2020, the travel demand in this sector is expected to rise at 862 million travel a year and 1,2 million new tourism enterprises will have to provide services for this growing demand. It is huge wave that might generate +25% of economic contribution, providing +75% of international visitors in Europe.

The concept of accessibility has deeply changed. Being provocative, we might say that there are two different forms of disabilities. One disability is objective: it depends from physical, sensorial or mental impairments.The other form of disability is generated by the lack of thinking, will, imagination or money. It is the result of the interactions between a subject and the environment in which he/she is moving, working, studying, having fan, etc. It is an induced form of disability, created by bad or patchy design. First, this special disability represents the infringement of rights. Secondly, is the source of economic damages or losses. The all the initiative as the one organised by the University of Pavia are very welcome, to stimulate positive thinking and creative energies.

Fabio Liberali