Barrier-free cities

From the WOW catamaran to everyday life, what are the world’s most accessible places for people with disabilities?

Home life Barrier-free cities
Barrier-free cities

How can an accessible city be recognised? An accessible city boasts ramps, equipped sanitary facilities, and special means of transportation. And there’s more: the access to the Internet and to ICTs also plays an important role. World cities are becoming ever more aware of the needs of disabled people thanks to documents such as the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. Entered into force in 2008 and ratified by 166 countries, the Convention established objectives for a more inclusive world focusing on general principles of equality, individual dignity and equal opportunities - involving every single aspect of life. In New York the UN Secretary General, António Guterres, gave this document to Andrea Stella, founder of the non-profit organisation “Lo Spirito di Stella” and designer of the homonymous catamaran - the first one without architectural barriers. The vessel is protagonist of the “WOW-Wheels on Wales” project, according to which the catamaran will cross the Atlantic Ocean, leaving from Miami at the end of April and heading to Trieste in October, as soon as “Lo Spirito di Stella” and its crew deliver the document to Pope Francis. The aim of its journey is to show the existence of a world without barriers, be they architectural or psychological.

Barrier-free cities 01

But what are the most accessible cities in the world? Seven years ago, Europe saw the introduction of the Access City Award, a prize awarded by the European Commission to those who, more than others, have been advocates of inclusive policies that have facilitated the daily lives of disabled and elderly people, taking into account all the above-mentioned aspects: transport, public spaces, communication and architectural barriers. Cities of at least 50,000 inhabitants can participate and the winners are selected by a jury of experts on the subject. 

Chester, United Kingdom
The 2017 award winner was Chester, in North West England, United Kingdom. The city population is over 300,000 people, 18% of whom have some form of disabilities. The city inhabitants were made life easier even in the most difficult areas to be accessed: the historical town walls, for instance, were equipped with ramps and, where access cannot be complete, special measures were adopted to facilitate visits by disabled people, such as additional handrails and a tactile floor. Bathrooms, instead, are bigger than standard size, and are provided with showers and adjustable changing tables. Buses and taxis are both accessible. In addition, the city was provided with other systems: there is a “Shopmobility” service for the renting of wheelchairs and scooters to access shopping areas and, seven days a week, there are accompanying persons for those who need help while shopping.

Rotterdam, the Netherlands
The second ranked city is the most populous in Holland after Amsterdam, with more than 600,000 inhabitants, 30,000 of whom are disabled. Here the municipality is supported by accessibility experts whenever large scale public works are planned. Whoever had accessibility problems, however, can report them using the app “Better Outdoors”. By selecting the “rapid repair” function, the problem will be solved within 24 hours. As per public transportation, all stops will be made accessible by 2018. A number of them has already been provided with audio information for sight impaired people and audio tours to walk in crowded places. And there’s more: by law, the bicycles parked on side-walks can be removed.

Jūrmala, Latvia
The third ranked city is the thermal town of Jūrmala, with a population of almost 600,000 people and 25 km of beach and pine forest. Thanks to its position overlooking the sea, the municipality decided to provide those who have balance problems with tricycles and sight impaired people with tandem bicycles and table tennis rackets with acoustic balls. For those who want to bathe in the water, reclining wheelchairs are provided for swimming, not to mention professional assistants who can be asked when needed. Means of transportation are also accessible, and for those who cannot use them, there is a door-to-door service - also available for the delivery of medicines, food, wood or on-demand cooking staff. The goal is to allow everyone to live by themselves, and for this reason the city also provides financial assistance to wheelchair users. As per the municipality website, it was designed taking into account sight impaired people as well, while an app provides useful information for the disabled and families with small children.  

Lugo, Spain
The oldest Roman city of Galicia was awarded the special mention as the smartest city. In addition to the collaboration with disabled people's organisations, Lugo focused on new technologies to accommodate their demands. The municipality website uses Readspeaker to make it easier for sight impaired people to access Internet content without downloading any software, while Braille maps and subtitled videos for the hearing impaired are available throughout the city. To allow everyone to actively participate in everyday life, instead, a five-storey smart house is rented by disabled people's organisations, where sign language interpreters work as well. 

Alessandria, Italy
Italy is on the list too thanks to this Piedmontese city, which was awarded a special mention for its commitment to accessibility during a period of economic hardship. In 2012, in fact, the city had declared bankruptcy, and had turned to private people to continue its inclusion policies. Over the three-year period 2015-2017, however, the municipality has resumed the issue of accessibility, funding initiatives for people with disabilities and raising awareness among citizens. Along with the Disability Manager, about 40 organisations agree on priorities and activities to be carried out, and funding and bonuses for those who use, for example, mobile lifts, anti-decubitus mattresses and electric wheel-chairs have been set up in recent years. Among the projects launched, "Via LiberAl" is a map showing architectural barriers in offices, cultural, religious and public places, to inform citizens and to draw the attention of both municipality and merchants to any problems, suggesting how they can be solved. In addition, tandem bicycles and folding bicycle sidecars can be rented, while dining table napkins provided with symbols related to some requests - such as "enough", "good", "toilet", "help me", "thank you” - can make communication with waiters and restaurateurs easier. Since 2015, the annual two-day event "Abilitando” has featured technologies to help people with disabilities in various aspects of their everyday life.

Funchal, Portugal
The capital of the Madeira island was awarded a special mention for its commitment to accessibility in a geographically complex environment. Praia Formosa Beach in Funchal was equipped with special tools to help sight impaired people. Among them, “Audioplage” is a bracelet that allows its users to swim in a safe and independent way: thanks to symbols, braille and audio messages, indeed, distance from the beach, depth of sea and bathing conditions can be communicated. For those who prefer the pool, specially designed low seat wheelchairs are available, allowing their users to go into the water, sit in a stable way and come out of the water without using the ladder. Also on the agenda is the accessibility to the "Carros de cesto", the typical wicker baskets of the island. These sledges, on which passengers take their seat, are pushed downhill by two sledge drivers for a ten-minute toboggan ride from the small vil
age of Monte to Funchal.

As far as non-European cities are concerned, there is no such prize as the Access City Award. Therefore, some cities can be taken into consideration thanks to quantitative and qualitative data such as quality of life, number of ramps and accessible transportation. In the United States, for example, the New Mobility Magazine, dealing with people with motor disabilities, and the WalletHub finance website identified, in separate researches, the best American cities in the area of disability services. According to them, two cities are noteworthy. The first one is Denver because, despite being located in the Rocky Mountains, it is at the forefront of accessibility innovation thanks to services such as door-to-door transport 23 hours a day, 7 days a week. Moreover, all light rail trains are accessible, as well as almost every bus, sidewalk, and many hotel rooms, while at Coors Field the seats have a universal design. The other city is in Kansas, near Colorado: as a matter of fact, in Overland Park over 70% of people with disabilities have an occupation, the cost of medical examinations is lower than average, all means of transportation are accessible and volunteer services are available to accompany and guide the disabled where they most need it.

In the meantime, the WOW catamaran crossed the Atlantic Ocean entering Portimão’s harbour on 25 June. “Lo Spirito di Stella”, the world’s first catamaran to be accessed by people with disabilities, will resume its journey on 13 July, stopping at other European ports before reaching Italy. Here the project members will participate in an audience at the Vatican, where they will be awarded the title of “World Peace Ambassadors”. After leaving Rome, the vessel will make a few more stops before reaching Trieste, where it will participate in the 2017 Barcolana race on 8 October. Its journey will come to an end in Venice, where the vessel is expected to arrive on 15 October.

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