Vehicle design and accessibility for persons with disabilities
President of the European Disability Forum (EDF) – Yannis Vardakastanis – says that the three main points which can make a difference concerning the design of public transport vehicles include boarding, space allocation, and information. Yannis takes a further look into these features which can be helpful to improve accessibility for persons with disabilities.
The European Disability Forum (EDF) is the European umbrella organisation representing the interests of 80 million persons with disabilities in Europe. The mission of EDF is to ensure that persons with disabilities have full access to fundamental rights through their active involvement in policy development and implementation in Europe. EDF is a member of the International Disability Alliance and works closely with the European institutions, the Council of Europe and the United Nations.
Vehicle design is one of the starting points which can contribute to better accessibility to public transport for persons with disabilities and thereby contribute significantly to a full and equal participation in society, generating full inclusion. In fact, the United Nations Convention on the Right of Persons with Disabilities, which has been ratified by the European Union and most of its Member States, obliges the authorities to make transport accessible for persons with disabilities on an equal basis with others. Considering the relatively long life spans of many vehicles this can seem like a far-off reality but this makes it even more important to consider accessibility features already from the outset and incorporate them in the vehicle design. Retro-fitting vehicles with ramps or other accessibility features is more costly than designing a vehicle that is accessible and more convenient for all passengers.
Besides the obligation under the UN Convention, there are many reasons to advocate for accessible vehicles. Often, public transport is the only way to travel for persons with disabilities that cannot drive a car, such as persons with visual impairments for example. With the demographic change in Europe it is very likely that more and more passengers will have disabilities so accessibility is a necessary element of long-term sustainability of public transport in general. If the vehicles are accessible to all, this also means that the city becomes more attractive both for residents and for tourists and it increases passenger numbers and facilitates passenger flows. It should also be kept in mind that it is not more costly to introduce accessible means of transport because accessible vehicles are already available at the same prices as non-accessible ones.
By generating a market for accessible vehicles used within public transport, economic growth can be stimulated to the benefit of the designers and producers of accessible transport material. And one has to remember that it does not create any difficulties for persons without disabilities to use taxis, buses, trains, etc. that are accessible. In contrary, this creates the possibility for all to be included in the public transport chain. The more accessible material there is, the easier it will be to replace the vehicle – for instance in cases of breakdown of a bus. It will speed up the replacement process and save time for all passengers as well as help the operator to keep the services running on time.
But what exactly makes a vehicle ‘accessible’? Of course, persons with disabilities are not a homogenous group and needs and preferences vary widely between disabilities but also from person to person. It may be impossible to design a vehicle which is 100% accessible for everybody but the UN Convention also provides for the principle of so-called ‘reasonable accommodation’ which implies adjustments in particular cases to ensure that persons with disabilities can enjoy their freedom on an equal basis with others. Having said this, small improvements can already make public transport a lot more accessible to most people. In any case, it is important to make sure that all persons with all kinds of disabilities, regardless from which Member State, need access to use public transport and therefore it is necessary to make sure that an equally high set of standards is applied everywhere to guarantee equal access.
Most aspects of the vehicle design that can make a difference are clustered around three main points: boarding; space allocation; and information. To follow, I will go into more detail to explain the different features that can be helpful to improve accessibility:
In many cases, there is no step-free access from the platform or bus stop onto the vehicle. And even if there is step-free access, the gap between the vehicle and the platform cannot always be navigated by all wheelchair users so there might still be the need for the use of boarding aids, usually ramps. Both manual and automatic ramps are currently in use and there are advantages and disadvantages in both cases. Assistance is needed to place manual ramps but those ramps are also less prone to defects so they are more reliable. Automatic ramps are more convenient and can be operated remotely by the driver of the vehicle or station staff but they can be faulty or cannot be used at all stops. In any case, the boarding process is of course a crucial part of the journey and it is the aim that everybody can board the vehicle as independently and spontaneously as possible. Needless to say that the use of steps is the least accessible way to design a vehicle and long outdated. It also has to be clear where the most suitable boarding point is so that the passenger can locate the ramp and position themselves accordingly. Another important aspect is that drivers and other staff know how to operate the boarding aids and that any faulty equipment is reported immediately. Disability awareness training can help to reduce misunderstandings and misconceptions concerning persons with disabilities.
Both the allocation of space inside the vehicle, as well as the doors are important features in the context of accessibility and contribute at the same time to the optimisation of the passenger flow. To start with the doors, of course they have to be wide enough to allow wheelchair users and mobility scooters to enter easily. It is also important that the doors open and close in such a way that they cannot hurt anybody who is standing close by. Especially for blind persons or persons with visual impairment this can be a safety hazard and it has to be made sure that a suitable audio and visual signal is given as a warning. It is also useful to have external speakers on the vehicle to indicate the position of the doors if this is not easily detectable from the opening signal.
In the more general design of the vehicle, some simple features are very useful to improve the accessibility of the space: handrails have to be placed in appropriate places to provide support but also to avoid creating obstacles for blind and visually impaired passengers or obstruct the wheelchair space. The floor surface should be slip-resistant and have contrasting markings to avoid tripping over. Adequate lighting is an important aspect, too. There should be enough headroom in the vehicle to avoid bumping into hanging obstacles or overhead rails.
Finally, the seating should be considered carefully, including the wheelchair spaces. Priority seats should be clearly marked as such and they should be easy to reach from one of the entry doors. If there are armrests they should be movable so that it is easier to get in the seat or up again. Handrails for support to get up are useful for persons with reduced mobility or reduced strength. If the wheelchair space is a shared space with prams, bikes, etc. it should be clear that priority is given to wheelchair users because it is the only safe space for them to use. The space should be sufficiently big to have a turning radius for the wheelchair user to position themselves accordingly, both for manually powered as well as electric wheelchairs. The more space is allocated for wheelchair users inside the vehicle, the less it will cause delays if it only takes a minute or two for the wheelchair to be manoeuvred to the safe position. And the better the information is regarding priority seating, the better their understanding among customers without disabilities will be.
Besides the more aforementioned traditional aspects of vehicle accessibility, information provision is equally crucial to complete a journey – both before and during the trip. First of all, it is important that the transport provider publishes information prior to the trip so that every passenger can decide for themselves if the vehicle will be accessible for them. This also requires an accessible website as well as print and audio information in alternative formats. If this information is provided, a passenger with a disability can plan their trip according to their specific preferences and needs.
Not even mentioning the difficulties of navigating the station and the surrounding infrastructure, information provision is equally important inside the vehicle itself. The information can be broadly divided into audio, visual and tactile information while signage and symbols can be seen as an additional aspect. Static visual information such as posters or signs should be in large print, high contrast and placed in a convenient location (i.e. not too high or too low and somewhere that people can approach to read from a shorter distance). Dynamic visual information to announce stops such as screens or other display boards should respect a minimum screen size and resolution as well as clear contrasts and, again, be placed in an appropriate location. Transport providers should also refrain from including distracting information such as advertisement.
Audio information such as stop announcements and emergency alarms should be clear and understandable. The door closing signal should be loud enough but not too shrill or disturbing as this can be disorientating for some people. It should also be made sure that the emergency intercom system can be operated by persons with disabilities.
Tactile information can be both in braille and in relief and is especially useful on buttons inside the vehicle such as the ‘stop’ button in buses. If it is only distinguished by colour from the emergency button, this can lead to confusion for persons with visual impairments.
Symbols and signs should be kept simple to help, for example, persons with intellectual disabilities to use public transport independently. At the same time, those symbols also facilitate travelling for tourists that do not speak the local language.
New technologies including mobile phone apps and websites can help passengers with disabilities to plan their trips and also get information during trips. This should, however, just be an additional option and not the only source of information. Older people especially rely on more traditional sources of information such as print and audio and which should therefore be high priority in the design process of the vehicle. The presence of staff inside the vehicle is also helpful especially in situations which are outside the usual operating procedures. Staff should be trained accordingly and learn how to communicate appropriately with deaf or hearing impaired people or persons with intellectual disabilities to inform them about any changes as well as giving general information.
Most of the aforementioned accessibility features already exist and are in use in different kinds of vehicles. However, from the EDF perspective it is important that those features are used consistently and according to certain standards across the EU. If the symbols used to indicate the emergency exit are different in every EU Member State, this can lead to confusion; the same is true for different types of ramps in use. But of course innovation should also be encouraged as there is always potential for improvement. This also has to be reflected in the transport policies, both of the EU and of the Member States, and Disabled Persons’ Organisations should be consulted continuously throughout the policy making process.
Apart from this, the EDF recommends that public transport operators only purchase vehicles that are compliant with international accessibility standards and to continuously make efforts to improve the accessibility of their transport fleet. Manufacturers should take on voluntary accessibility standards in the initial stages of the vehicle’s design to avoid more costly retro-fitting measures and upgrades later on. It is also in the economic interest of the manufacturers to train their designers and engineers in ‘design for all’ principles to raise awareness of accessibility needs as this is an economic potential which has not been fully realised yet. With the growing importance of sustainability and efficiency in urban transport this can be an advantage for manufacturers, public transport providers and passengers alike.
Yannis Vardakastanis has been President of the European Disability Forum (EDF), the umbrella organisation of the European Disability movement, since 1999. He has also been the President of the National Confederation of Disabled People of Greece since 1993. He has been an active disability rights campaigner throughout his working life and has held a number of key positions, including: elected Member of the Board of the European Blind Union (from 1996 until 2011); Vice President of the Social Platform of European Social NGOs (form 1999 until 2003); and Member of the Management Committee (from 2003 until 2007) of the Social Platform, to name a few. Since September 2010, Yannis has also been a Member of the European Economic and Social Committee (EESC), representing the Greek Confederation of Disabled People and a Member of the EESC Bureau. Additionally, he has been Chairing the International Disability Alliance (IDA) between 2012 and 2014.