The first use of the word barrier is in Middle English as barrere and later in Late Latin as barrāria and barra relating to the noun bar (OED Online 2012). The first definition of the word in the Oxford English Dictionary is “A fence or material obstruction of any kind erected (or serving) to bar the advance of persons or things, or to prevent access to a place” (OED Online 2012). This glossary focuses on how barriers create accessibility problems for differently abled people in the built environment and how it in turn produces social barriers.
The conventional understanding of disability focuses on the individual. For instance, an individual is considered disabled if they deviate from a normal standard of ability (Engel 1977). In contrast to the conventional understanding, the social approach sees that disabilities are produced by society. For example, engineers, architects and designers produce the built environment that can enable or disable people. Imrie succinctly describe this social production of disabilities in the following:
“Critical to the production of such disablist and disabling environments are the roles of architects and/ or design professionals. Indeed architects, and other design professionals, are implicated in the production of the built environment, in developing aesthetic values and propagating specific concepts of design. In this sense architectural ideas and practices are of importance to explore in order to gain some understand of ho disablist space in the built environment are developed and perpetuated” (Imrie 130).
In the social approach to disability, individual are not the one who needs to be ‘fixed’, but instead barriers should be removed so that the responsibility to prevent disability lies in the hands of architects, engineers, and designers. I will give two examples of how barriers in the built environment produce disabilities. First, stairs produce a disability because it is a barrier for those in wheelchairs and others who cannot climb them. Through a designer’s choice of incorporating stairs or other alternatives, it creates barriers that the individual must face. Second, the suburban sprawl after World War II, where there was a low dense of development, causes the barrier of far distances. This is a disability for those who do not have the means to transportation such as those who cannot drive. There are a number of reasons that engineers and architects should pay attention to the barriers mentioned above. Our population distribution is changing such that the population of older people is greater than younger (aging baby boomers). As a result, our construction of the built environment needs to address the concerns of this aging populations’ mobility such as 1) climbing stairs, 2) easy access to public transportation from residential areas (because of their inability to drive), and 3) we may need to retrofit homes to improve the lives of those who wish to age in place.
The physical barriers that are produced can also become social barriers. The conventional individual approach to disabilities puts blame on people who are differently abled than the majority. This may lead to social exclusion and emotional distress. For example, my grandfather who is 98 years old and need to be carried down from the bedroom on the second floor to the ground floor dining room in order to have a family meal. This produces feelings of a lack of independence and loss of dignity. We need to raise awareness to design professionals and to the public.
Engel, GL. 1977. “The Need for a New Medical Model: a Challenge for Biomedicine.” Science 196 (4286) (April 8): 129–136.
Imrie, Rob. “Oppression, Disability and Access in the Built Environment.” In Disability Reader: Social Science Perspectives, 130. Continuum International Publishing Group.
OED Online. 2012. “Barrier (as Noun).” Oxford English Dictionary. http://www.oed.com.myaccess.library.utoronto.ca/view/Entry/15765?rskey=8wiR8g&result=1&isAdvanced=false#eid.