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Can The Built Environment Be Universally Accessible?


In many references, including Olifer (1996), it has been clearly asserted that in the context of social model, there is a clear distinction between impairment and disability. Impairment is individual condition which encompasses physical, sensory, intellectual and behavioral aspects whereas disability refers to the activity limitation which is caused by the failure of society to meet the needs of people with impairment. In an other word, according to social model of disability, it is society which has been disabling people with impairment.

Linked to the social model’s understanding of disability, physical environment such as housing, public transport and any other public space and building has large contribution toward social disadvantage and discrimination faced by disabled people. As argued by Hasler (1993), that the problem faced by disabled people doesn’t come from their individual limitation but it comes from inappropriate response of society, the presence of physical environment which is disabling people from getting access is therefore one kind of barriers which comes from the inappropriate response. There is no doubt therefore that a change should be made. If barriers is to be disabled, built environment then should be made universally accessible.

Discourse on the implementation of the universal built environment therefore, is very interesting to be discussed. Notion of whether or not the built environment can be universally accessible is still debatable. Moreover, there is still too much doubt toward it’s practicality and achievability. Writer’s interest to such debate leads to try answering question “can the built environment be universally accessible for disabled people.” In attempting to answer this question, first, this essay will attempt to discuss understanding of accessible built environment by looking at housing provision, transport and public amenities in relation to disabled people. The next, this essay will try to explore how inaccessible built environment has become barrier for disabled people by employing some case studies. In the next part, challenges to the implementation of accessible built environment will be discussed, and finally, the discussion will focus on the technical analysis of how feasible, practical and achievable accessible built environment is.

Accessibility and Experience of Disabled People

Accessible built environment is an idea of enabling every body, including disabled people to get similar access to the built environment. It refers to the condition of free barriers and having similar space (Freund, 2001). Furthermore, Freund (2001) suggests that in term of accessibility, there is strong relationship between spaces (environment) and body condition. Experience of disabled people therefore, become a meaningful contribution while discussing accessibility.

Since accessibility issue is always related to different experience of people with different level and range of impairment, definition of accessibility it self is very abstract and needs to be brought to the more practical level. Therefore, it is necessary to discuss this issue in the experience level where interaction between disabled people and the built environment happen. In making clarity of what is meant by the built environment, it is necessary to be stated here that it refers to the provision of housing, transport and public amenity in relation to disabled people.

Understanding of Accessibility

In term of transport, Heiser (1995) introduces his term (transport disability) as “unnecessary exclusion of disabled people from current forms of transport, especially public transport”. This idea, according to Heiser (1995), comes from his principle and understanding that disability is a particular form of oppression which arises when impaired people are unnecessarily and unreasonably excluded from their social interaction. He illustrates that in general, transport system doesn’t accommodate, or unsatisfactorily accommodates the need of disabled people by creating design which makes it difficult or impossible for disabled people to use it. In an other word, transport provision becomes accessible if it enables people to use without undo difficulty.

The fact of the inaccessibility of transport environment can be easily seen and proven by looking at the presence of transport infrastructure and service provision in conjunction with disabled experience (Imrie, 2000). Heiser (1995) for instant, gives an example on how the situation of transport provision in Britain was in 1990s. He emphasyses on the design of transport provision which doesn’t accommodate disabled people. He says:

“The reality in Britain in the 1990s is illustrated by the sort of physical problem we are confronted with every day: steps up to buses, steps inside the buses, narrow gangways, unfriendly seats, no help in the bus, no good visual or audio information, bus stops not having any kind of raised loading quays, no seats, no shelters, trains that are inaccessible, inaccessible toilets. I imagine that we all know what public transport is like in this country and that those of us who diverge significantly from a stereotype of ideal humanity find it difficult or impossible to use. (Heiser, 1995).”

In the mean time, the presence of transport system has become also inaccessible because of attitude of transport service providers or people who work in the operational of transports. Regulation made and applied by transport providers also often perpetuates inaccessibility. Olifer (1993) tells his experience when he went to Washington, D. C., to attend a disability conference in 2000. Since he is a wheelchair user, he needed to prebook a seat with enough legroom to sit safely and comfortably. However, an answer he received was “It’s not allowed”, “IATA regulations don’t permit it”, “It’s up to the Captain”, “We don’t know how the plane will be loaded”, “You’re not allowed to block exits”, “We don’t know what plane we will be using”. (Olifer and Gordon,).

The next, according to Olifer, airport’s regulation has also restricted independence of disabled people. Olifer’s experience indicates that airport doesn’t allow wheelchair users to use electric wheelchair in the airport after checking in. When he checked in in Hithro Airport, he had to be transferred to a manual wheelchair which means he would be sitting in an uncomfortable wheelchair as well as restricting his personal mobility. In this case, it is clear that regulation of transport provider often makes the more difficult and dependent situation for disabled people. Olifer case for instant, because he could not use his electric wheelchair, it means he could not mobile independently and would require someone to push him on the manual wheelchair. In addition, Olifer’s experience again shows how people working in transport service are not fully prepared and trained to meet the needs of passenger with certain condition such as disabled people. He was lifted to his seat on the plane by two men inappropriately, without considering his privacy and dignity. Even the way they lifted has caused him to have some damages on his body.

Olifer experience might represent other disabled’s experience fighting with inaccessible transport. And, unfortunately, those kinds of unpleasant travel experiences have restricted disabled people to use transport service (Heiser, 1995). Simply, it is not because disabled people do not want to go, but because disabled people neither can use nor can get access to such kind of transport (Finkelstein, 1994).

Further to Finkelstein’s assertion, the fact on the inaccessible transport for disabled people has given large contribution toward creation of social barrier to fully participate in the social live. Comes from a simple understanding that transport is always about a bad and unpleasant experience, disabled people have definitely become reluctant to travel or mobile, and it means that they have been indirectly isolated from the whole of social live. This is what Finkelstein (1994) mentions as “cultural immobilization of disabled people”. Ironically, it happens and is perpetuated in the modern society when freedom of movement is liberated and becomes an important factor. The evidence is that most of transports are designed and built in the normal bases and it means there is an understanding that the user would be normal (Finkelstein, 1994).

How transport accessibility affects live of disabled people would not become a question. Since getting to work, education, health service, socialization and any other aspect of live is reliant to mobility, and disabled people are restricted their mobility by inaccessible transport, therefore, it is clear that the presence of inaccessible transport has also directly becomes barrier for them to gain such basic needs (Heiser, 1995 and Finkelstein, 1994). In an other word, lack of transport access has restricted disabled people from wider inclusion. A transport research report written by Jolly, Priestley and Matthews (2006) gives evidence on how inaccessible transport has influenced it. The headline of the finding says:

· 23% of those actively seeking employment had turned down a job offer

· 23% had turned down a job interview,

· 20% found it difficult or impossible to get the healthcare they needed

· 15% were unable to collect prescriptions

· 50% of those who do not see family and friends as often as they would like state inaccessible transport as the reason.

· 18% had missed a special birthday party

· 12% had missed a wedding or funeral

· 27% said inaccessible transport restricted their leisure pursuits

Resource: Transport Research Report by Jolly, Priestley and Matthews (2006).

Overall, the headline of finding above can be referred as strong evidence that access of transport becomes a strong and important factor toward the wider inclusion for disabled people. Therefore, failure of providing access to public transport for disabled people will perpetuate the exclusion of disabled people from social live.

It is inevitable that problem on getting access for disabled people doesn’t stop in the area of public transport. Housing, as the smallest area of disabled’s mobility and activity has also become one of the main issue under accessibility. Everyone would agree that dwelling is not only a matter of place to stay and take shelter, but rather as a smallest area in which people begin to socialize with other and achieve their self actualization. In this matter, what disabled need is housing which support their independence (Fielder, 1991). He said that:

“Increasingly, disabled people were rejecting the traditional attitudes and expectations that result in special, different and lesser living arrangements. They sought instead independent and ordinary lifestyles - including a home, a job and a family - not just for a particularly tenacious, extraordinary or privileged few, but for people with all kinds and degrees of disability. Disabled people wanted access to, and enablement for, the same range of opportunities and responsibilities as their able bodied peers (Fielder, 1991).”

The situation of being dependent at home to others would not happen if disabled people are living at home which doesn’t handicap them (Morris, 1990). In fact however, home, for disabled people has become a place in which disabled people remain very dependent to their relative or housemate. A physically impaired person who use wheelchair for instant, he or she will simply always need someone else to lift him/her from bed to wheelchair, simply because his/her bed is not equipped with lifting device. Also, any other part of house such as door, kitchen and bathroom do not enable him/her to be independent. Even to just get out from home, he/she will need help from someone else because a set of stairs is waiting. In addition, there are still many other problems for physically impaired people to live in an ordinary housing that makes him/her to be dependent to others. Similarly, with different level and range of difficulties and dependence, visually impaired people and deaf people will also face different form of barrier for being independence. With this kind of condition, if house or dwelling is the smallest place for people to actualize them selves and express independence, disabled people therefore will have never been able to express their independence and actualize them self even in their smallest social environment.

Those kinds of experience of being handicapped at home is most likely caused by the presence of home design which is not adapted with condition and needs of disabled people (Harris, 1997, and Walker, 1995). Just like transport, most of houses were built in the normal/majority condition view point without considering the needs of dwellers with impairment and/or different condition. As consequence, of course such houses still remain isolate and detain disabled people from getting wide socialization, and finally disabled people still remain excluded.

In addressing the need of accessible housing, residential care is often considered by the government as a solution (Morris, 1990). However, it does not seem to be appropriate. What disabled people want is to be independent, having control on where to live, and being inclusive in the society (Harris, 1997, and Morris, 1990). Being sheltered in the residential care means that disabled people are kept isolated even from their family. In addition, this way has in fact excluded disabled people from within the society.

An other issue related to accessible housing is home ownership for disabled people in connection with their level of economy (Hemingway, 2004). As discussed in previous paragraph that issue of design has become main concern of accessible housing, it is of course possible to make adjustment of houses to meet the need of disabled people. However, it would then lead us to talk about financial resources.

Most of disabled people are living in low income and it means that it is even difficult for them to own ordinary house. Even in many cases, it is indicated that access for disabled people to the mortgage is more difficult than those who are none disabled (Hemingway, 2004). This fact has become a certain financial obstacle for disabled people to own an accessible house. Moreover, if they have to buy adapted house, the price of course will be much more expensive. Even in the UK for example, part M of building regulation has regulated the provision and guide of accessible housing and public building, it will not be able to solve the problem since most of housings are not provided by the government and they are instead handed over to the housing industry (Harris, 1997). Based on this consideration, it seems that housing industry will remain to build housing in the majority user’s view point without paying attention to accessibility, and, if there is any, the price would be more expensive and not affordable for disabled people.

Home and transport are only part of the built environment in which problem of getting access is faced by disabled people. In the broader level, most of public buildings and public spaces still constitute barrier for disabled people. Ease of access is often not provided. Imrie and Kumar (1998) argue that mostly in public building:

“Pavements tend to be littered with obstacles while most public buildings provide few design features to permit disabled people ease of access. Induction loops are rare in public buildings while colour contrasts and tactile paving are poorly designed and/ or often non-existent. In turn, such evidence has led a number of commentators to conclude that the design of the built environment is disablist by restricting, and discriminating against, the mobility and access requirements of disabled people. (Imrie and Kumar, 1998)”

Such description gives a clarity that problem on getting access for disabled people seems to be multi layers barrier which exists from the smallest social environment (house) in to the broader level (built environment. This then becomes one of important factors which block the way of disabled people to achieve their independence (Olifer, 1993). The logic following this notion is that built environment including houses, transport and all built environment are products of industrial society (Olifer, 1993). They have made houses which are not accessible, they have designed inaccessible transport, or if there is any, it is more as an exception rather than a roll, and most importantly, all public buildings were designed and built by industrial society by ignoring the need of people with disability. As consequence, disabled people remain and will still remain become dependent, and more clearly, built environment in which socialization and movement are liberated will remain become obstacle and barrier for disabled people. In addition, this situation will make no change for disabled people. They will remain socially and physically death, since what they need to mobile, to have accessible space to move and to express their independence are not accommodated (Finkelstein, 1993).

Why is The Built Environment Inaccessible?

As discussed in previous section, the presence of inaccessible environment is mostly about design which does not give ease to disabled people. Moreover,, some other consideration such as attitude of society, regulation and financial issue have been also pointed out as some other factors which contribute toward construction of inaccessible environment. In the mean time, it has been asserted as well that accessible built environment is an inevitable prerequisite for disabled people to achieve their independence and inclusion. This will then lead to a question on how the practicality and achievability, and how to implement it. The answer of both questions will be of course discussed in the next section; however, before come up to the discussion, it is important too to explore the reason on why the creation of built environment has been inaccessible, and what factors/stake holder which potentially influence the realization of accessible built environment. In writer’s view point, this would be important to underpin analysis on how achievable and practical the idea of accessible built environment is.

By referring to the previous section’s discussion that access is mostly always about design, it is relatively close to the role of professionals. They have tended to create the built environment (houses, transport and public amenities) without considering the needs of disabled people. Strengthening this notion, Imrie and Kumar (1998) argue that the role of professionals and the way they define disability has tended to see disability as individual problem, rather than social construction. Moreover, Walker (1995) argues, what professionals have done is to create world as they see, not the world of their parents, and also disabled people. This can be generalized to professionals who work in the design of housing, public transport and public amenities. By assuming that they have done it unintentionally, we might consider that education on such accessibility awareness in term of the built environment for professionals is still less than enough (Walker, 1995, and Beneke, 1999). This notion can also be extended to the industries which are involved in providing houses, transport system and public amenities. Therefore, increasing professionals’s understanding regarding disability and accessible built environment as one alternative of removing barrier for disabled people might be a good idea as one of stages to bring the accessible built environment in to reality.

In connection with the way professionals see the need of accessibility for disabled people, a common assertion is that accessible built environment is only the needs of a group of individual which does not affect social environment, and it will cost more money to implement. The need of accessibility, in an other word, is still seen as a special need which does not constitute responsibility of society. Objection to this notion is that everyone has each special need to survive, and, inevitably, it is expensive to achieve their special needs (Walker, 1995). Furthermore, Heiser (1995) in detail argues that providing accessible transport, will safe much money rather than giving them exceptional in form of special or exclusive transport. It will of course affect positive impact to the economy. In an other word, it could be said that building accessible environment will costless as long as it is seen within the long term development framework.

An other unsupportive situation to accessibility is that most of services such as housing and transport are provided by industries which profess free market in which they tend to be unwilling to subsidise public services, and, they are in a strong belief to their commitment to deregulation and competitive tendering and in general hostility to anti-discrimination legislation (Heiser, 1995). Inevitably, economic principle “to invest as little amount as possible to get as much profit as possible” becomes their framework. In this theoretical framework, there is no room for accessibility. Such kind of thing is considered as an extra cost without bringing extra profit. This is because of their market analysis that the number of disabled people (such group who need these services) is not many, and as consumers, they are considered as purchasing powerless. Against this notion, such belief is only based on the profit oriented without considering in to the various needs of consumers. And, time will say that whenever consumers have increased their consciousness on their right of consumers, such industries will be left.

However, it should be remembered that professionals or industries are not the only stake holder which influence the presence of built environment. Government and it’s policy has also played an undoubtedly significant role on the realization of the built environment. In the UK for example, in 1970s, the only regulation which obliged provision of accessible environment was Chronically Sick and Disabled People (CSDP) act. However, it seems that this regulation put large responsibility to the private, not the government/employer (Imrie and Kumar, 1998). Even in the implementation, the criteria of accessible building have been restricted to the minimum standard of accessibility which finally it has forgotten the most important objective of providing accessibility. Recently in the UK, the presence of Disability Discrimination Act (DDA) has made a lot of improvement on providing access of housing, transport and public space for disabled people (Prideaux, 2006). Undoubtedly, this is because the content of the regulation it self firmly pose protection toward disabled people against discrimination, and inaccessible environment is in this regard considered as a form of discrimination. And, in the mean time, the willingness of government, supported by any available resource is also a noticed factor. Even though this has not been as accessible as disabled people want yet, it however, can be seen as evidence that government and their policy can play a significant role to intervene the implementation of accessibility.

Emphasising this point, government and their policy will become an important supporting factor toward realization of accessible built environment if disability is considered as a social issue or, in an other word, if disability issue has been included as mainstream on their plan of development. On the contrary, inaccessible built environment will remain perpetuated, if disability and the need of access are still considered as an individual problem.

Finally, this discussion leads writer to an understanding that the realization of accessible built environment can be seen as an embodiment of awareness of society, including agent of industry, professional and government to see a fact that built environment is space which is supposed to accommodate the need and right of every individual, including disabled people. The fact that provision of access is closely related to sensitivity of awareness of disability has clearly proved that it is impossible to implement accessible built environment without rising awareness of society.

Accessible Built Environment, the Practicality and Achievability

It has been discussed in previous section several points related to the presence of inaccessible built environment and it’s effect to disabled people. Experience of disabled people facing inaccessible built environment has been also pointed out to strengthen this point. Whole above discussion has directed to a notion that the presence of inaccessible built environment has been becoming strong barrier for disabled people to achieve their independence, and, as the answer, creating built environment which is universally accessible is an absolute demand. Of course this idea is an ideal condition which is theoretically, within humanity and social approach is achievable. However, since creating accessible built environment is more related to technical adjustment or modification, it is necessary to examine it’s achievability and practicality in the technical level.

Accessible built environment or exception?

Demand of accessible built environment is, and will be always faced, by a question whether or not access for disabled people can be provided separately or as an exception (Vanderheiden, 1990). Providing special service for disabled people such as special house (resident care) and special transport is still sometime considered as a solution for disabled people. However, in social analysis as discussed in previous section, it seems that this idea tends to individualise problem of disability. Even this idea seems to be an evidence of the existence of an understanding to see disability and the need of access as individual rather than social problem. Furthermore, this idea is rather to create a new barrier for disabled people for getting wider socialization and inclusion instead of supporting independence for disabled people. Therefore, it could be argued that providing access for disabled people as an exception will not be able to answer the problem. Disabled people will still remain excluded, as long as access is not provided, or, although provided, but as an exception or separately with none-disabled people.

In the more technical analysis, it is true that if the need of access is demanded by disabled people and elderly people, the number of such group is large. However, it should be realize that dealing with disabled people is about to deal with various range of impairment with various different need of access (Vanderheiden, 1990). Housing for example, if wheelchair user needs a house with ramp instead of set of stairs, and toilet and kitchen in the grown floor, for visually impaired people such things are not really necessary, although they will become an ease. Instead, what they need is tactual and contrast coloured symbols.

If the need of access is to be provided as an exception, it means that houses, transport and other services and environment should be designed in various different designs. But rather such solution is impractical if not impossible. First, because it will instead restrict movement space of disabled people in to such special accessible service, secondly, it simply because such idea is economically infeasible, and the last, because it is better to create a design which can be used by most people including disabled people rather than creating one for abled body and create separate design for different access needs of disabled people. In an other word, it would be more feasible to arrange one design to be usable for majority people. Of course, it is undoubted that it is impossible for one design to be usable for every people without exception. In such case, exception then becomes necessary for the particular group, who because of their functional limitation, can not make use of such universal design.

There is also a strong doubt to the implementation of accessible built environment. This hesitancy is underpinned by a big question whether or not accessible built environment is economically and practically feasible (Vanderheiden, 1990). To answer this question, several example on creating accessible house and accessible transport will be pointed out.

Heiser (1995), in his article, by referring to office of technology assessment in the US, pointed out that to make the bus accessible by implementing level-change device for each new bus will cost approximately 1 per cent of the total operational cost of the bus. The next, according to Heiser, if assumed that economic value of a new bus is 20 years, and the bus will operate for 20 years, the additional cost to implement level-change device would be 1%*O*20. Note: O is operating cost per year. It is not a significant increasing of amount, and of course, it is economically affordable and achievable.

Strengthening this notion, a study by Fowkes, Oxley and Heiser (1994) found that by excluding disabled people from public service, there is additional cost which government should pay to deliver service for disabled people, and the amount is 1 billion pounds per year. Below is a table as copied from the report document:


Transport disability cost (high estimate), p.a.







Home care


Other domiciliary care


Social work


Residential to day care




Patient transport service


Total per year


Resource: Cross-sector benefit of accessible transport, by Fowkes, Oxley and Heiser (1994).

This data shows that such expenditure is necessary because simply disabled people can not get in to mainstream transport to rich to such services. If mainstream transport becomes accessible, of course disabled people will be able to rich such kind of services and it will reduce the budget of disability transport above. This study shows how providing accessible transport can give a significant and meaningful impact in economizing budget for other sectors, and reasonably, some amount of the economizing can be use to subsidise expenditure of accessible transport. Therefore, it could be concluded that providing accessible transport is economical, feasible, achievable, and if firmly included in a long term base of transport planning, it is possible that within the next few years, an accessible transport system can be implemented.

In term of housing, both home modification for existing house and lifetime house have been introduced for long time (JRF, 1992, and Belchior, 2005). The principle of both is to offer independence for disabled people to get access in their house. But again, it will then talk about the cost. Joseff Rowntree Foundation (1992) introduces a design of lifetime home by emphasizing to the universal design and accessibility. This study discovered that building a lifetime home is much more inexpensive than making adjustment or modification after the house is already exist. The additional cost for the accessible features according to this study will be no more than 10 per cent of the total cost. This is reasonably affordable, achievable and has more economical value if compared with that disabled people remains dependent to the paid worker to do their domestic activities because of the inaccessible house.

Talking about the benefits of universal access for none-disabled people, there is no doubt that so far, the implementation of accessible design has given much more advantage, pleasure and safety for none-disabled people (Vanderheiden, 1990). There are many example of this. The presence of automatic doors have made none-disabled user more comfortable, simply because they do not need to push or pool the dor to pass it, the presence of lift makes people unnecessarily climb the stairs, and there are still many more example. Therefore, it should be clear that accessible built environment does not give advantage only for disabled people, but also for none disabled people.

Following to this discussion, a question always arised by disabled people then is “When can the built environment be universally accessible?” Agreeing to Heiser (1995) and Walker (1995), making the built environment accessible is not piecemeal. Providing 1 or 2 accessible transport will become nothing for disabled people independent to get to transport unless most of transport are designed to be accessible. Similarly, disabled people will still remain excluded unless most of public spaces are accessible.

This is a big of change. Government’s authority is really necessary to implement this idea. Implementation of accessible built environment should be prepare from realising a policy which firmly outlaws discrimination, and access issue should be one of issue under the discrimination. In the mean time, guidance to the accessible built environment (housing, transport and public amenities) should be clearly and legally binding toward any development plan (Prideaux, 2006). This is at least to make sure that implementation of accessible built environment can be started from any new building,new transport and new housing development. Lastly, and the most importantly, awareness of all stake holder of the implementation of accessibility should raise. Mainly to the professional, understanding of access design should be considered as a mainstream of design development (Vanderheiden, 2005). If such incorporated work is implemented, it is not imposible that accessible built environment will become reality.


At the very beginning, this essay has tried to make a clarity on the understanding of accessible built environment. By referring to a thought by Freund (2001), accessible built environment is seen and understood as an idea of enabling every body, including disabled people to get similar access to the built environment. What meant by built environment here is referring to the provision of housing, public transport and public amenities. Traveling experience by Olifer and other discussion has been raised on making clarity of how inaccessible environment has exclude disabled people from getting wider participation in the social life which then led disabled people to be socially death (Finkelstein, 1993).

The next, this essay has highlighted several points which either directly or indirectly has caused and perpetuated the presence of inaccessible built environment such as attitude of service provider, lack of understanding, unsupportive policy and the role of professionals.

Technical analysis of the implementation of accessible built environment has been attempted to discuss. In this section, this essay suggests that it is imposible to in general provide services for disabled people as an exception. Of course, in certain case and condition, access design has weakness to answer need of people with certain impairment, however, it is unrealistic to provide services for disabled people as an exception. Instead, this will makes a new barrier and social exclusion. Secondly, it is suggested that accessible built environment is practical and economicly feasible and achievable. The next, it is highlighted that provision of access will not only benefit disabled people, but also none-disable user. And, lastly, idea of accessible built environment will potentially become reality if several factors such as government attitude, adequate policy, awareness of accessibility toward the stake holder and mainstream of access in any development planning can be incorporated.


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