“Studies on accessibility have concentrated on the costs of improvements but have forgotten their benefits, which are reaped by everyone”
An economist by training, the main author of documents such as the Spanish “National Accessibility Plan 2004-2012’ and accessibility studies with close to twenty years of experience, Fernando Alonso is promoting the new diversity model from accessibility consultancy Acceplan, the result of the crossover between his academic activity on systems for evaluating public assets and the development of accessible and inclusive environments. With an open and integrative perspective, he defends the mainstreaming of diversity to achieve maximum social impact without any need for people with disability to exercise as such in order for them to be taken into account.
Q.- How did you incorporate accessibility considerations into your professional activity?
A.- At the company where I worked we received a request from disabled people to promote a universal-use housing cooperative and I connected the idea with that of public assets evaluation, my field of study at the UAB. I asked myself why houses were not made more accessible and realised that there were many studies on the costs of accessibility improvements but none on their benefits. Considering accessibility as an asset “without a market”, with thousands of surveys we saw that the perceived benefit of accessibility is around 12% whereas the increase in cost is some 4%. There is a social profit margin that was not being taken into account. Acceplan was born as a spin-off linked to the UAB and the perspective has been opened up to new collectives, such as elderly people. We have moved on from physical accessibility to full accessibility and from traditional focuses (building, public space, transport, etc.) to a more horizontal vision.
Q.- Is society prepared for the new diversity model? Is there sufficient commitment and training among professionals?
A.- With the property boom, a major opportunity was lost. Now our great hope is active ageing. Young people are open to new possibilities, and being sensitive to social issues gives greater meaning to technical training. In Spain it is not easy to work in accessibility because major players have the power and there is no real free competition. The State and the institutions have transferred the management of accessibility and, in our case, the outlet for our investment in terms of know-how and experience lies outside Spain.
Q- What role is played by design in the quality of accessible projects?
A.- Functional, universal and sustainable design is the basis of a good solution to problems in managing the surrounding environment. Providing that the conception is not goal-oriented purely in terms of aesthetics, design is a major determining factor in the quality. But we must not fall into the trap of showy accessibility against effective accessibility: because it’s in fashion, studies and professional and scientific criteria are often lacking. Much money is spent without really knowing why and for whom, with unnecessary trial and error processes and the repetition of insufficiently researched standards. We need to continue studying and re-editing the analysis, always in terms of needs.
Q.- Are the laws useful as instruments? How would you split responsibility between the different agents?
A.- Sometimes change requires coercion; there’s no alternative. The problem is that they make laws too easily, based on electioneering interests, and forgetting that they have to be enforced. The responsibility is shared, but public action has to lay down the guidelines and to date it has tended to wash its hands. If everyone was clear about the concept and everyone designed inclusively, parameters wouldn’t be necessary. However, this is not the case and the standard has to establish certain minimums. As people, we are not aware of our life cycle: we all have some problem and we will all grow old… I would like to see a society where it isn’t necessary to “exercise as” in order to be taken into account, where everything flows much more naturally. A powerful lobby should not be needed; accessibility should be mainstreamed on a social level.
Image: PDP658CT13 – 60×60 inches – acrylic over paper in birch panel. Work by Cecil Touchon.
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