Accessibility to facilities and universal design – what the law says, and how it is in practice

About 15% of the world’s population are people with some form of disability. Does architecture help or hinder them in their daily lives?

Although the practical and theoretical foundations of architecture, from ancient classical styles to modernist design principles supported by the possibilities of standardization advocated by the leaders of the modern movement, primarily Le Corbusier through the proposed system of measures establishing a basic module for universal application in architecture (Modulor), are based essentially on anthropometry, that is, the adaptation of the designed and built space to human measurements and morphological characteristics, we are witnesses that modern architectural production is often accompanied shortcomings of the functional quality and accessibility of the facility for users with reduced mobility. The adaptation of the environment and architecture to the needs of people stems from the progress of civilization and humanistic values.

Therefore, taking care of the accessible environment is a kind of challenge for the development and reconstruction of cities that are responsible for adopting spatial and urban plans, issuing building permits and conducting inspections of construction, but also a very important housing and communal policy. The quality of the built environment is measured primarily by its positive impact on the lives of users.

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The access ramp can be designed to form part of the ground floor and to allow unobstructed access to the building; Zabriskie Studio, Merin Hill; Photo: Relja Ivanić

The application of universal design is also necessary for the unimpeded movement and use of public spaces and facilities.

Bearing in mind that the eye 15% of the world’s population are people with some form of disability, that is elderly people in Europe on average about 20%, as well as that many people for various reasons in some period of life face difficult or limited ability to move and use space, ensuring accessibility of space and facilities in the planning and design process (especially those for public use), is considered an important requirement social importance and which reflects the responsibility of all actors in the construction process (from investors to local government).

Accessibility by definition is the result of the application of technical standards in planning, design, construction, reconstruction, extension and adaptation of buildings and public areas, by which all people, regardless of their physical, sensory and intellectual characteristics or age, ensures unimpeded access, movement, use of services, work and residence.

In addition to the accessibility of spaces and facilities that is provided through various architectural solutions, for the smooth movement and use of public spaces and facilities it is necessary to apply of universal design (in the European Union under the name Design for everyone), which involves intervention on surfaces and facilities, including ancillary devices and equipment, with the basic aim of creating equal access, participation and use opportunities for all potential users (various types of visual signs and symbols, signaling and audible warnings, tactile surfaces, etc.).

Kindergarten “Tesla – science for life”, Block 67; Aleksandar Vuja, Milan Đurić, Milka Gnjato; Photo: Relja Ivanić

The Law on Prohibition of Discrimination stipulates that everyone has the right to equal access to facilities in public use.

In addition to the accessibility of the facilities belongs to one of seven basic requirements which the facility should meet in an economically acceptable time of use, in addition to mechanical resistance and stability, safety in case of fire, hygiene, health and environment, noise protection, energy saving and heat retention, and sustainable use of natural resources, which must be ensured during spatial planning and design of facilities, application of accessibility measures and Design for everyone, integrated into domestic legislation through several regulations, is one of the key values ​​of a developed society and has a foothold in international human rights instruments, such as the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.

So Law on Prohibition of Discrimination prescribes that everyone has the right to equal access to facilities in public use (facilities in which the seats of public authorities are located, facilities in the field of education, health, social protection, culture, sports, tourism, facilities used for environmental protection, protection against natural disasters, etc.) and public areas (parks, squares, streets, pedestrian crossings and other public roads, etc.).

Law on Prevention of Discrimination against Persons with Disabilities instructs owners of private and public buildings to make the necessary adaptations to make access to facilities and services possible for persons with disabilities, prohibiting their discrimination in access to public facilities, areas, services and public transport.

Law on Planning and Construction defines the concept and aspects physical accessibility and stipulates that public and business buildings, other buildings for public use, and residential and residential-commercial buildings with ten or more apartments must be designed, built and maintained so that all users, especially persons with disabilities, children and the elderly, enable unimpeded access, movement and stay, ie use in accordance with the appropriate technical regulations, ie standards.

Counter adapted for people with reduced mobility; Photo: Rules

In practice, non-compliance with legal obligations is widespread, resulting in facilities that do not meet accessibility standards.

There are elements of accessibility it is necessary to anticipate in the phase of planning and development of regulatory plans, and therefore the “rules of arrangement” should, among other things, contain the conditions by which public areas and facilities appear accessible to persons with disabilities. According to Rulebook on the content, manner and procedure of preparation and manner of performing control of technical documentation according to the class and purpose of facilities (2019) technical documentation is necessary to ensure that the facility as a whole, or in each separate part, is suitable for its intended use, meeting the basic requirements of safety and accessibility.

Standards which define the obligatory technical measures and conditions for planning, design and construction of facilities that ensure unimpeded movement and access for persons with disabilities, children and the elderly, are prescribed Rulebook on technical standards of planning, design and construction of facilities, which ensure unimpeded movement and access for persons with disabilities, children and the elderly (2015). The application of the standards prescribed by this Rulebook refers to the planning of new facilities and spaces, design and construction and extension of new facilities (public, business and residential buildings), as well as to the reconstruction and adaptation of existing facilities, when technically possible.

Despite the fact that professional supervision during construction includes control and verification of the quality of all types of work and application of regulations, standards and technical norms, including accessibility standards, with the competence and authority of the construction inspector to control the investor whether he provided access to the facility for people with disabilities according to accessibility standards and to impose fines in case of non-compliance with this obligation, in practice, non-compliance with this legal obligation is widespread, which results in numerous newly built and reconstructed facilities that do not meet accessibility standards.

Access ramp for people with reduced mobility; Photo: José Tomás Franco

We often come across public areas and facilities that have ramps in the access part that are not functional and adequately constructed.

The city of Novi Sad is an example of good practice in the strategic approach to solving the problem of accessibility, which included the involvement of a larger number of actors, finding appropriate solutions, educating the community and professional services (the City Assembly in 2012 adopted Accessibility strategy of the City of Novi Sad 2012-2018. years). Through Program for renovation and improvement of public facilities in public ownership in the sector of education, health, social protection and sports, initiated by the Government in 2016 and implemented by the Public Investment Management Office together with local governments, more than 500 buildings were reconstructed in compliance with accessibility standards based on the standardized procedure of project preparation and implementation.

In our environment, we often come across public areas and facilities that have access ramps that are not functional and adequately constructed. Newer housing construction abounds in problematically dimensioned and designed spaces, especially entrance parts and communications, thus affecting the quality of life and customer satisfaction. In practice, application is often neglected Rulebook on conditions and norms for designing residential buildings and apartments (2015) which calls for harmonization with the regulations on accessibility in terms of solving the access to the building (access area, staircase, ramp, etc.) and the entrance area in case of denivelation of the access area and the elevator access station.

Built environment and accessibility: Photo: Giordano Aita / Shutterstock

Raising awareness of the general and professional public

With the future improvement of the legal framework and technical regulations on accessibility, by adopting new standards and ensuring their adequate application in practice by specifying to which classes and purposes of facilities which accessibility standards are applied and Design for everyone, it is necessary to constantly influence raising awareness of the general and professional public about the importance and necessity of applying accessibility in planning and design so that the spaces and facilities we use every day are customized and equally accessible to all users.

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