International Seminar on Environmental Accessibility, Beirut, 1999
II. SUMMARY OF DISCUSSION
B. Environmental accessibility and universal design
It was noted that the Seminar was using the term "environmental accessibility" in a broad sense: accessibility was viewed as a social construct and not simply a characteristic of the built environmental. This followed the usage of the term in the World Programme of Action. It also was noted that environmental accessibility was not synonymous with universal design, which is an approach and set of procedures concerned with social inclusion and choice.
Prof. Abir Mullik provided a brief introduction to universal design concepts and issues. He noted that universal design was concerned with accessible and inclusive designs for all. Universal design is concerned with designs for the built environment and for products that are usable to as many persons as possible. However, universal design is not synonymous with the production of a single design to meet all cases and circumstances. Universal design takes as its premise that disability can happen to anyone, so design processes must be inclusive and produce equitable benefits, which are social goals. Universal designs are not entirely about accessibility but about the appropriateness of design solutions to gender, to demographic group and to social and economic setting.
Prof. Mullik listed seven principles of universal design:
Discussions noted the importance of a regional dimension in applying the principles of universal design in planning and developing barrier-free environments.
One participant noted that universal design reflects a social construct and needed to reflect the development setting and cultural traditions in which it would be applied. In some countries, universal design focused on promoting personal independence and empowerment while in others the focus was on family as well as community-based approaches to assist those with special needs.
A question was raised about whether universal designs were cost effective or whether low-income countries would not be able to use universal approaches due to other competing development priorities. It was observed that universal designs produced collective benefits and thus were not inherently more costly than other design approaches. One participant noted that universal designs do not result in significant increases in infrastructure development costs. Budgets were not the issue in implementing universal designs but promoting public awareness and understanding is the more important factor.
Among the important considerations in promoting universal approaches were: (a) an appropriate policy and legislative framework concerning accessibility and (b) wide-spread public awareness for the role of universal approaches in promoting environmental accessibility for all. The role of universal design could be seen in a shift in concern with designs that responded to average conditions to designs that responded to the needs of the many and recognition of accessibility not as an add-on but an essential design standard.
The view was expressed that universal design is the more powerful concept than environmental accessibility, which frequently was characterised as a response to meet the needs of particular sector of society, persons with disabilities for instance.
Universal design is concerned with collective benefits, universalisation, and the provision of alternatives rather than homogeneous solutions. Universal designs recognise diversity. Universal approaches relate to processes of social transformation, which are characterised by respect for diversity and inclusion.
One participant noted that while his country had implemented good legislation on accessibility, relatively little had been delivered since, in his view, the process to implement the legislation was weak. In his view there was a need for a paradigm shift in which universal design is viewed as a challenge and not a regulatory requirement. This suggested a need for awareness raising - as mentioned previously - and training of national personnel. Another participant commented that regulations on accessibility might be viewed as steps to achieve changes required to produce barrier-free environments. A third participant noted that legislation was useful in identifying areas of need and setting minimum standards on accessibility.
The view was expressed that a move to wide-spread awareness and support for universal design may require at least a decade and would require a commitment to training of national personnel since there currently was limited expertise in this area in countries. Public education campaigns were important since many did not understand fundamental design processes and their contribution to accessible environments for all. There were at least two levels in which efforts were required: (1) training in universal design concepts and principles level and (2) public awareness and support of universal design level. It also was noted that consideration should be given to a more descriptive term, such as inclusive design as means to promote widespread support and awareness of the universal design concept.