The European Social Network (ESN) attended a two-day conference on accessibility at city level on 18-19 June. The event was organised by Eurocities. Focusing on local initiatives promoting accessibility, the conference looked at innovative practices, but also at the remaining obstacles to fully accessible cities and services.

People with disabilities, but also older people and even parents need accessible roads, buildings and services. Throughout the conference, accessibility was highlighted as a key factor to enhance social inclusion, and active ageing. However, with the European Accessibility Act being delayed, and in the absence of far-reaching European standards, there is still a long way to go before achieving barrier-free cities across Europe.

The European framework: on our way to more accessibility?

Sofia Lourenço, responsible for accessibility issues at the European Commission’s unit of persons with disabilities, reminded the audience that disability policies were in the hands of member states, making it difficult to implement binding regulations in the field. However, it is in the EU’s remit to ensure that persons with disabilities have their needs, aspirations and rights reflected in all pieces of EU legislation. The long awaited EU Accessibility Act should be published later this year, with a number of provisions for accessible goods and services.

Examples from the local level: a “culture of disability” for citizens and decision-makers

Bernard Jomier, deputy mayor of the city of Paris, underlined the necessity to have citizens develop a “culture of disability”. Effective implementation on the ground will not be possible until everybody realises that accessibility is good and desirable for everyone. The involvement of persons with disabilities and older people in the designing and planning phase was deemed essential. A district in Oslo (Norway) has been leading a pilot project in the framework of the WHO (World Health Organisation)’s Age Friendly Cities initiative, where user participation and the development of sustainable and inclusive communities are at the centre of the project. Other examples included the Berlin “wheelmap” listing accessible places, and how Ljubljana became a model in terms of accessibility and inclusion in Europe, by redesigning the whole city around these principals. While presenting the Lisbon pedestrian accessibility plan, its coordinator Pedro Homem de Gouveia highlighted how political the issue of accessibility was, and the importance of committed politicians in making it happen. Governance provisions and how different levels of governments work together were also discussed.

Using accessibility to build inclusive communities at the local level

Marianne Doyen, Policy Officer at the European Social Network, emphasised that the concept of accessibility goes beyond physical means. Public services are the main channel through which communities can protect persons with disabilities from isolation, poverty, unemployment and social exclusion. In order to access services and social services in particular, we need to consider other dimensions, such as how to train staff so they can adequately assist people with disabilities, how to make information accessible, notably on the web, and what arrangements should be made on workplaces to meet the needs of persons with disabilities.

By 2050, one out of three Europeans will be 60 years old or more. Arrangements with regards to accessibility are crucial in preventing new disabilities or further deterioration. Moreover, and in the aftermath of the crisis, accessibility is not only a social obligation, but also an economic requirement, with the costs of inaccessibility being high for health of long-term care and social systems and services - as rightly suggested by Lisa Warth from the WHO.