Newsletter | Sep/Oct 2007

Norwegian Council on Accessibility

by Gilda Puente-Peters
The Norwegian Council on Accessibility and University of Trondheim invited me to make a presentation and share my U.S. experience with these government representatives and design professionals on Accessibility and Universal Design.

For the presentation in Oslo to the Norwegian Council on Accessibility, I was asked to present a retrospective as well as my point of view of whether the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) has worked or not in the United States.

There were representatives from ten ministries who are in charge of setting the Norwegian system, codes and regulations for Accessibility and Universal Design. The gave me the opportunity to reflect on the ADA Law as civil rights and the impact it has had in achieving access for persons with disabilities in the built environment as well as making their goods, programs, services, and activities accessible.

Although quite a bit of progress has been achieved in the United States since the passage of the ADA, the process has not been so simple and easy. Design professionals and the construction industry had to deal with a complex set of Federal and State codes and regulations, which in some cases are conflicting and continue to be developed and will do so for years to come. The slow and lengthy code development and adoption process. The fact that the ADA is an un-funded mandate that imposes a financial burden on public entities and private businesses. The lack of an effective enforcing system at the Federal and State level that has forced people with disabilities to use the courts to force public entities and private businesses to comply with the law. The lack of formal education of design professionals on this subject that has resulted I in the creation of many facilities that are not quite accessible and nor usable by persons with disabilities.

Interesting discussions took place regarding a system like in the United States that has both prescriptive (codes and regulations) and performance standard (ADA statues-civil rights). The tendency in Norway is to set a system based more on performance standard, not to limit the creativity of design solutions and product development. This system is based on aggressive educational program starting with the students of architecture and related design professions to the rest of the construction industry. The drawback of not having prescriptive requirements, in my opinion, is not being able to take advantage of all the research that goes behind each code requirement hand in hand with the understanding of ergonomics and needs of people with disabilities.

In Trondheim, I gave two presentations; one on Outdoor Accessibility and Universal Design and another in Building Accessibility and Universal Design. The audience composed of architects, planners, landscape architects, and interior designers who were all enrolled in a postgraduate specialization on Universal Design were really impressed with the vas level of detail and development achieved in the U.S.

This was a wonderful experience for me to be invited to share my knowledge and at the same time exchange ideas and approaches to this field in continual development. By looking at the built environment in Norway, and in many other parts of the world where the environment is still less accessible than in the U.S., I concluded that yes, the ADA has worked despite all the glitches and things one could have done different in an ideal world.

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