Implementing universal accessibility: challenges and steps towards action

Mamerto, a beneficiary in the Philippines, receives emergency supplies from CBM in 2013

Benjamin Dard, CBM Technical Advisor for Accessibility discusses the challenges remaining in implementing universal accessibility.

Current Barriers to Universal Accessibility

People with disabilities are among the most vulnerable groups in natural disasters and conflicts. They are, paradoxically, also the least considered in emergency and development programmes. Although there is a recent rise in awareness of the importance of disability inclusion, there is still a significant gap between policies, standards and levels of implementation.
Lack of access to the built environment, transportation and Information and Communications Technology (ICT) are key barriers to the inclusion of persons with disabilities in society in low income countries. Access to information and communication is as important as access to the physical environment. People with disabilities are often faced with the lack of access to early warning systems, as well as a lack of capacity to escape and find refuge. This may lead to catastrophic results, in the earthquake that struck Japan in March 2011, for instance, evidence indicates that people with physical disabilities and elderly people were two times more likely to die than the rest of the population. 

At the international level, only a few countries have put in place guidelines or regulatory frameworks to promote accessible ICT. Only half of the world's countries have included accessibility principles in their codes and building standards. In addition, even when legislation on disability and accessibility exists, it is often overlooked by the general public, national and international stakeholders.

Many mainstreaming actors still think that they do not have the expertise necessary to turn universal accessibility into reality. On the one hand, agencies and organisations believe that disability requires specific knowledge and skills, often related to medical issues. On the other hand, there is the perception that accessibility is expensive. Actors tend to think that accessibility is "a luxury they can not afford."

Strategies for universal accessibility

Making accessibility a cross cutting issue  
In order to ensure a better implementation of accessibility in development project activities, it is important to include disability as a cross cutting issue amongst actions, programmes and policies. 

This involves the inclusion of accessibility principles in all planned actions, including legislation, policies and programmes conducted by both national and international actors. Actions to be taken in this direction include both the extension and massive dissemination of standards and legislation on universal accessibility (publication of user-friendly technical guidelines, dissemination of good practices).

Advocacy plays a signification role in the successful implementation of such action as it helps encourage changes in cultures and mentalities, while ensuring constant pressure on government authorities and international agencies to put disability and accessibility on their political agenda.
Capacity building
In addition to this, it's important to support specific initiatives that promote empowerment and capacity building for people with disabilities. Building expertise on universal accessibility at the level of disabled persons organisations (DPOs) is a key factor in the successful implementation of accessibility.

Building the capacity of institutions and organisations of persons with disabilities will ensure their participation and the promotion of universal accessibility in development projects. Their presence and involvement is essential to ensure the relevance and sustainability of actions undertaken in the field of accessibility. It is the essence of the role of international cooperation in the field of disability to facilitate and support capacity-building, through the exchange and sharing of information, experiences, training programmes and practical reference.

A pragmatic approach to universal accessibility
The implementation of universal accessibility in low income contexts necessarily requires the adoption of a pragmatic approach, in other words ”accessibility in context". This implies not only about adjusting regulations to realities in the field but also having an adequate response to needs given limited resources. This effort usually revolves around the development of trade and sharing with different stakeholders. It results in ownership of accessibility by the actors themselves, a prerequisite for the development of innovative practical solutions at the local level.