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Without accessibility many opportunities get lost

More than 10% of the Latin American population suffers some type of disability. This situation requires the creation of public and private spaces and facilities that are accessible to all.

A group of IDB experts in public transportation, urban development and social development recently devised operational guidelines on accessibility in urban development projects with universal design principles. They focus on creating access to public environments for all persons, independent of their physical and sensory characteristics.

The idea of access for all is not new. In many developed countries, the use of the universal design in both public and private spaces is very common. Universal design accommodations may include installing pedestrian ramps, low platforms, alternative trips, tactile directional signaling, point-of-reference floors, public phones at a maximum height of 5 feet, among other solutions. In Latin America, experts already have noticed certain advances in this area, but they are not enough, they pointed out at a seminar held at the Bank's headquarters.

Among the successes, experts pointed to the case of an innovative system of urban public transportation in Brazil. The case has brought international recognition to the Brazilian city of Curitiba and is often offered as a prime example of social inclusion. The city successfully implemented universal design in its public transport system, namely because the doors on its metropolitan trains and buses are lowered after stopping for passengers, so there's no need to climb a staircase to get in.

Other countries also provide accommodations for people with disabilities. For example, in Argentina, regular buses include low platforms, while in Bogotá, the National Museum of Colombia offers models such as figures in relief and texts in Braille, that can be utilized by blind persons.

The need to address universal design issues is often discussed interchangeably with the need to provide opportunities for persons with disabilities, but experts point out that this association is mistaken. The goal of universal design is really to provide opportunities for all, including elderly people, pregnant women, obese people, as well as people carrying large loads or pushing baby strollers.

Although people with disabilities are most affected, because without access to services and public goods they do not have the same opportunities to receive education and work, everybody benefits if they can use public transportation and contribute to social and economic development.

Also, many people that have family members with disabilities sacrifice significant amounts of time that could have been used in productive activities in order to stay home to care for those family members. And this situation has a bigger impact on the economy. In fact, inaccessibility exacerbates the vicious cycle of disability and poverty because it makes it impossible for disabled people to gain access to work, which in turn generates unemployment and reduces a family's income.

The experts suggesting universal design also emphasized the importance of implementing policies that recognize accessibility as a vital topic for social inclusion. “Policies are not enough if there is no physical accessibility,” pointed out Wanda Engel, IDB Chief of Social Development.

The guidelines seek to establish technical standards, to implement universal design in urban development projects and to boost social conscience on the matter. They also suggest taking accessibility into account in designing IDB programs in urban development, housing, transportation and other sectors, and including accessible elements when designing mechanisms for public use.

The guidelines specify the principal design points of these programsand aim to attain inclusive development based on diversity and autonomy.

According to José Brakarz, a specialist in social development and one of the editors of the guidelines, there is a need to go beyond the good intentions; actions are what is needed, and the guidelines are intended to increase knowledge and management in this area. “Any investment made a priori is extraordinarily economical a posteriori, because adapting costs much more.” As an old saying suggests, the specialist indicated, “the cornerstone is the most important.”