Access

9.1 Access is the gateway to full participation in society for people with disabilities. In its broadest sense, it does not just mean access to buildings or the external environment of streets, parks and beaches. It also means access to rights like the right to travel freely, the right to health care, the right to education, the right to housing, the right to personal social services, the right to communications, the right to benefit equally from the Information Society, and the right to express their sexuality. In short, it means full and equal access to all the rights, responsibilities and benefits of society.

9.2 This chapter is concerned with access to the built and external environments, which for most people with disabilities, is a pre-requisite condition necessary to enable their access and participation in any or all of the other aspects of social and civil society.

9.3 The frustration and anger caused to people with disabilities by the inaccessibility of buildings was all too evident in the submissions to the Commission. Added to buildings themselves was the lack of consideration and awareness displayed by managers. Either singly or together, they create a sense of exclusion which can take a person with a disability to the edge of despair and confirm them in their isolation and marginalisation from society.

9.4 Numerous references were also made to other barriers, needlessly placed in the way of the full participation of people with disabilities. For instance, wheelchair users find it impossible to go to beaches even though that could be rectified by simple and inexpensive arrangements. The absence of a bleeping system on traffic lights makes life so difficult for people who are blind.

9.5 The introduction in 1991 of the Building Regulations with a section on access for people with disabilities - Part M (Access for Disabled People) which referred only to new buildings and significant extensions to older buildings raised the hopes and expectations of many people. Unfortunately, those hopes have given way to a weary resignation. Despite strong pressure, the pace of change has been agonisingly slow.

9.6 One of the main reasons for the state of resignation is clear from reading the regulations. Their approach to the question of access is not aimed at establishing an enabling environment for everyone but of making special provision for special cases. For example, requirement M1 reads: "Reasonable provision shall be made to enable disabled people to have safe and independent access to a building and to those parts of a building to which it is appropriate to have access". Implicit in that is the suggestion that it might be "reasonable" to deny people with disabilities access to certain parts of buildings.

9.7 Although the regulations cover safe and independent use of buildings by people with impaired vision or hearing, the wording of requirements suggests that the approach to access is still rooted primarily in access for people with impaired mobility.

9.8 Furthermore, there is no consideration of the benefits of improved accessibility for everybody and there are inconsistencies between Part M and other parts of the regulations dealing with fire (Part B) and stairways, ramps and guards (Part K).

9.9 The approach taken by the Building Regulations generally results in designers and others interpreting the cited minimum requirements as being optimum or even maximum requirements. They also reinforce the idea that just a few accessible features in a building will do rather than making the building as a whole accessible.

9.10 Such deficiencies are compounded by the lack of definition of terms such as "reasonable", "practicable" and "appropriate". The absence of clear definitions leads to vagueness in their application, especially when there are no clearly-defined rights of redress.

9.11 The other main disappointment with the Building Regulations is the apparent lack of enforcement of Part M. Local authorities are responsible for ensuring compliance with the regulations, although the legislation is worded in such a way that building inspection per se is not mandatory. This works to the detriment of people with disabilities since good, workable access is still considered by many designers and building owners to be less essential than other aspects of the regulations.

9.12 Mandatory access to existing buildings and to the external environment has been achieved elsewhere only through anti-discrimination legislation. The same mechanism has been used to ensure the provision of information in non-print formats and of sign interpretation. Even with anti-discrimination legislation, however, a supporting structure of technical and non-technical information and back-up is essential to ensure that "accessibility" is not confined to the minimalist approach of building codes.

9.13 The success of legislation on access elsewhere rests on the accuracy with which such terms as "reasonable accommodation" and "undue burden" are defined. In the absence of clear criteria on this issue in Ireland "reasonable" has been interpreted to mean "reasonable in terms of cost" (i.e. Cheap) as opposed to reasonable compared to an entity's income or assets as in the USA.

9.14 Definitions and understandings of what is "reasonable" vary according to cultural circumstances. Accessible features can be considered as an expensive, troublesome add-on which responds to the demands of a very few people, or as a facilitative approach to design which ensures that all users can gain maximum benefit. While goodwill abounds in Ireland, the evidence points to a scenario nearer to the former than the latter.

9.15 A more creative way of looking at this issue is to study a particular place and to see if a solution is possible to problems of access. If it is, then it is practicable. If the solution does not work, it is not reasonable: if the solution does work, it is reasonable. So long as it works for preferably 99% (if not, in some circumstances 95%) of all users, then it is both reasonable and practicable. In this way "practicable" defines "reasonable" and not the other way round. This uncompromising approach clearly puts people with disabilities, rather than designers, at the centre of the process. It removes the element of emotion or sympathy from the equation, replacing it with scientific rationality. This approach is implicit in the regulations accompanying the Americans with Disabilities Act.

9.16 Attitudinal changes cannot be achieved by legislation alone. The key notion of accessible design offering benefits to everyone is beginning, slowly, to take hold, largely because of two linked considerations: demographics and economics.

9.17 While these factors may in time prove compelling, education is necessary to shift the predominant culture away from "special needs" and towards concepts of equal, active citizenship and the universal right of access. Such education is needed for designers, building owners and managers and the public in general.

9.18 In making recommendations to deal with the deficiencies outlined in this chapter, the Commission believes that people with disabilities should be involved at all key stages of the process. They should be involved especially in a national committee, resourced by the Department of the Environment and set up to develop policy and practice and monitor progress in relation to the universal right of access to the built and external environments. The committee should include representatives of user groups, providers, regulators, and appropriate Government departments and agencies.

9.19 The Commission recommends that the Department of the Environment should ensure that the universal right of access for all citizens becomes the overarching principle which guides all relevant legislation, policy and practice in Ireland. The planning laws, fire regulations, health, safety and welfare legislation and all other legislation and guidelines which refer to any aspect of the built and/or external environments should also be reviewed by the Department from this perspective.

9.20 The Commission recommends that the Building Regulations, 1991 should be reviewed in the Department of the Environment to:

  • Eliminate inconsistencies from the Technical Guidance Documents which work to the detriment of people with disabilities.
  • Ensure that each local authority establishes an efficient building control department with responsibility for implementing the Building Regulations (and the Road Traffic Acts) fully and immediately.
  • Make building inspections mandatory.
  • Ensure that Part M is enforced vigorously.

9.21 The Department of the Environment should bring forward legislation to introduce access certificates, along the lines of existing fire certificates, specifying that buildings are safe and appropriate for use.

9.22 The Disabilities Bill to be introduced by the Department of Equality and Law Reform should ensure that all premises in public ownership or open to the public in any way (including employees, customers etc.) and the services and facilities they contain should become accessible to all citizens over a short timescale. The legislation should require pro-activity on the part of the public and private entities in achieving compliance.

9.23 The Department of Justice should also propose amendments to all legislation pertaining to the granting of licences to premises open to the public including licences to places of entertainment and public assembly, public houses and' restaurants - to require the District Court to have regard to the adequacy of access by people with disabilities.

9.24 The Department of Equality and Law Reform should introduce Equal Status legislation concerning access to goods, facilities and services as soon as possible, ensuring that the legislation and any accompanying regulations and/or guidelines define what is reasonable and what constitutes undue difficulty in such a way as to minimise derogations which mitigate against the universal right of access.

9.25 Given the importance of changing professional and public attitudes, the Department of the Environment should introduce a public awareness campaign to educate all citizens about the universal right of access. Professional bodies of architects and designers such as the Royal Institute of Architects in Ireland (RIAl), the Society of Designers in Ireland (SDI) and the Institute for Design and Disability (IDD) have already done some work to promote accessibility.

9.26 The Commission recommends that the RIAl and SDI should ensure that the universal right of access becomes a key criterion in all their courses, competitions and activities. Schools of architecture and other bodies involved in designer education should demonstrate practical commitment to the universal right of access as a teaching principle. Education and professional formation courses for architects and other designers should include examined studio projects involving universal (barrier-free) design.

9.27 FÁS should give consideration to extending its training for building control personnel to other interested participants, particularly facilitating people with disabilities to become involved. Training on access issues, starting from the principle of the universal right of access of all citizens, should be included on all vocational training courses, including in-service and continuing training, for design and building management professionals, such as planners, architects, engineers, fire/safety officers, interior designers, graphic designers, building managers and all allied service providers.

9.28 NRB is the sole agency in Ireland which can grant the International Symbol of Access to a premises. The use and usefulness of the International Symbol of Access is currently being reviewed by NRB.

The Commission recommends that the Department of the Environment should seek authorisation from Rehabilitation International to award the Symbol and that the Department draw up, in consultation with appropriate bodies, clear criteria and conditions governing the award of the Symbol. The scheme should then be relaunched, with all previous recipients invited to re-apply.

9.29 State funding mechanisms, including the National Lottery, should introduce accessibility to all citizens as a key criterion for the projects they fund.

9.30 However limited the benefits of the existing Building Regulations, the absence of any legally binding regulations regarding the external environment is worse. Standards vary enormously from place to place. Among the many barriers facing people with disabilities, especially those with mobility and sight impairments, are the conditions of pavements and the haphazard placing of street furniture and shop displays on them.

9.31 The existence of regulations would contribute significantly to the development of standards for roads, pavements, parkways, etc. In order to ensure equal participation for people with disabilities. The Department of the Environment should introduce legislation to regulate and enforce standards in these areas. It should also introduce legislation to regulate and enforce standards in signage to ensure consistency in symbol language, readability etc.

9.32 The prohibition of parking on pavements should be rigorously enforced and planning permission should be required for placement of street furniture. Local authorities should ensure that all pavements are dished and have tactile paving by the year 2000. Where pedestrian zones are created using cobblestones, a smooth path should also be provided. Wheelchair users should be entitled to use bicycle lanes.

9.33 Each local authority should employ an access officer to co-ordinate and promote access activities in their areas.

9.34 There has been a rapid development of local access groups, which are coalitions of people with disabilities, designers, interested local authority staff and people working in the field of disability. They are involved in checking out access for people with disabilities to the built environment. Most also advise building owners and contractors and provide advice on accessible parking, the dishing of footpaths and other aspects of the external environment.

9.35 The Commission recommends that the formation of an umbrella organisation for local access groups should be facilitated. Local access officers should support groups with training, technical information, advice on campaigning and group development.

9.36 In addition, local authorities should provide funding for local access groups and consult with access groups throughout the construction of new developments in the built and external environments.

9.37 The Department of the Environment should fund local authorities to improve accessibility in their areas on foot of agreed community based action plans.