Image of a man in a wheelchair waiting for a train

Europe is an urban continent. The vast majority of the EU population – four out of every five people – live in a town or city. For the roughly 80 million EU citizens who have some form of disability, navigating the bustling maze of a city can pose all sorts of challenges. People with disabilities would often like to be more mobile and independent, so are there better ways to design cities so they are more accessible for everybody?

There might be no wheelchair lifts on local buses, or no Braille on signposts, or perhaps there are annoying steps that block people in wheelchairs (or people with prams, or mobility strollers) from entering a building. Should city planners and architects consider these issues more carefully? And, where there are accessibility challenges, can technology help us overcome them?

On 1 March 2015, Debating Europe attended an event in Brussels hosted by the European Disability Forum and Google. The event brought together innovators and tech entrepreneurs from across Europe, and explored how technology can help people with disabilities to live more independently.

We saw presentations from some of the teams taking part in Google’s Global Impact Challenge, which is awarding grants to nonprofit projects working towards greater accessibility through technology. We spoke to some of the people around Europe who are designing and building such technology, and we asked them their thoughts on making cities more accessible places.

Want to learn more about accessibility issues in European cities? Check out our infographic below (click for a bigger version):

Visual representation of data on accessible cities already included in the body of the text

How can technology make cities more accessible? We put this question to Katherine Payne, Marketing and Communications Lead at the UK-based Wayfindr, an app which enables people with visual impairments to navigate urban transport systems, retail spaces, and other indoor environments using beacon technology.

Despite research suggesting that almost half (43%) of people with visual impairments want to leave their homes more often, navigating the confusing maze of a modern city can be a huge challenge. Technologies like Wayfindr can potentially help open up cities to people with disabilities, making independent living much easier.

Here’s the video of Katherine Payne’s answer:

And the full text transcript of her response is below:

Photo of Katherine PayneCities can be made much more accessible for disabled people through technology. There’s websites like Euan’s Guide, which is almost like TripAdvisor for disabled people. It allows you to review the accessibility of a venue and comment on those things.

Then there’s also much more exciting developments, such as the things that beacons allow us to do, which means that we can start using systems like WayFindr to open up indoor spaces to disabled people, people with vision impairments, or other access requirements. Which allows us to open up new journeys and new areas to people.

How can cities be made more accessible? Can new technology help us to achieve that goal? Let us know your thoughts and comments in the form below and we’ll take them to policymakers and experts for their reactions!

IMAGE CREDITS: CC / Flickr – Andre He

64 comments Post a commentcomment

What do YOU think?

  1. avatar
    Diana Clifford

    Like Scotland, yellow boxes (illegal to park on them or halt in them) in front of drop kerb from pavements to the road. My husband uses a power chair and this is infuriating when a thoughtless or worse driver blocks the drop kerb. Make it a towing away offence.

  2. avatar
    Samu Tandorf

    Get rid of private cars in downtown areas. Thus will create accessible and safe downtowns.

    • avatar
      Angela Browne

      Absolutely, because of dominance or perhaps even the exclusivity of cars in my region which looks down upon anybody that doesn’t drive … would love to see drivers pay $5 CAD per km of travel like I do. I can’t drive due to disability and my country does NOT recognize this as a disability worthy of compensation or to allow me to obtain employment of any kind …

    • avatar
      Elinor Chisholm

      Not for everyone. In some cases, “cars play a vital role in improving social participation and inclusion for people with mobility impairments” – Dr Esther Woodbury, in a thesis that opened my eyes to the complexity of this issue:

  3. avatar

    How can cities be made more accessible for disabled people?

    I see it the other way around. How can disabled people can adapt better and faster to evolving cities ? No offence, but I see it as a more rational solution.

    • avatar
      Dermot Devlin

      More rational? We already pay out for expensive wheelchairs and mobility aids as it, without being expected to pay more. Especially in this era when disabilities benefits are being stripped away from us.

      Forward planning is what needed to ensure that all European towns and cities are accessible to all.

    • avatar

      Las ciudades tienen que evolucionar hacia la accesinilidad universal por todos los que vivimos en ellas. Personas con discapacidad, niños, ancianos, mujeres embarazadas o con carrito de bebé, para tí, cuando tengas un accidente o enfermedad que te mantenga en una silla de ruedas temporalmente. A las personas con movilidad reducida, nos limita el entorno y la falta de sensibilidad, no la discapacidad en sí.

    • avatar

      The Issue is that people with disabilities can’t adapt a lot of the time and still wanna be part of a society.

  4. avatar

    A good starting point is to start PLANNING! It is as simple as that, PLAN for the accessibility of disabled and limited mobility people. The European population is aging, in case planners have not noticed, and they also need and will continue needing more accessibility.
    There has been no planning. Only band-aids applied here and there.

  5. avatar

    The European Accessible Tourism Directory Pantou gathers tourism suppliers who cater for people with different types of disabilities:

    • avatar
      Zack garyfalou

      It is not necessary if a ramp is involved, dear Dimitri.

  6. avatar
    Paul X

    I would say the last places on earth with any scope to adapt to disabled people is the cities

    Most cities are already overpopulated with severely stretched infrastructure and transport systems. It would take a lot more then a few dropped kerbs and disabled spaces to make any impact and to be brutally honest, how can you make things any easier for the disabled when even the able bodied struggle to negotiate many cities at certain times of the day?

  7. avatar
    Loretta D'Urso Trombetta

    For one, fix the sidewalks, make them smooth, and with ramps at street corners; WORKING elevators, in buildings; special ramps for beaches, the list is endless, especially for here in Italy!

    • avatar
      Zack garyfalou

      Necessary ramps on beaches *! In Greece, they have a University that manufactures specific ramps beaches and is funded by donors.

  8. avatar
    Dragos-Ronald Rugescu

    Everyone says ban/get rid/make illegal.

    How about grow a pair and start changing the culture through education. Ask young’uns in all the European states if they consider this issue important. Unless they have disabled in their family, they won’t even care.

    This is a deeply-rooted cultural issue.

  9. avatar
    Renata Maki Mitamura

    Tokyo is a great example! Those with physical disabilities have full autonomy for locomotion in the city using any means of public transport, and also have access to all the places they want to go, with all the means to facilitate their access.

    • avatar
      Laia EUROCIU

      Maybe Tokio is a good example, but Japan is not. Most train/metro stations do not have a lift.

  10. avatar
    Dobromir Panchev

    Hey, we living in the 21st century! Isn’t it better to make robotized aids for the people with disabilities in such a way that they can go anywhere a healthy person can, instead of making the environment accessible?

    • avatar
      Nina G.

      Interesting train of tought!

  11. avatar
    Fulvio Novì

    As a disabled person myself, I’d suggest making subways and buses totally accessible, but that’s something institutions probably already know. In addition, I like the idea of having an app telling you if some places are accessible or not. An integration with google maps would be a great thing. I’m thinking also of the possibility of setting google maps in such a way that it looks for free disabled parking spaces. I have never used Uber and similar services so far, but if they haven’t done that yet, they should include an option to arrange for the transport of people with disabilities. I think providing accessible means of transportation and buildings is the key, accessible also means as much tailored as possible.

    • avatar
      Angela Browne

      Sometimes the issue is having adequate, reliable and affordable transportation accessible to all in one’s community. I hardly go anywhere because I don’t drive.

  12. avatar

    In many European cities the biggest access problem is finding an accssible toilet. Either because they don’t exist or because they are hard to find. Exchange the Eurokey with an app, so that we can unlock the Eurokey-toilets with a code from the phone rather than a big key you must order and carry around. There should also be a law provididing assistance at buses, trains, trams when the transportational device is not accessible without help. I should not have to bring an assistant with me at all times, only because the bus drivers (in Oslo for instance) refuse to help me with the ramp. Maybe there can also be an app to order assistance? Curb cuts must be better – and more standardized. Look to the US! Plan ahead – it is so much more expensive to do access modifications in retrospect.

    • avatar
      Zack garyfalou

      The ramp,any ramp, and anywhere is the responsibility,duty, of the owner,to the person driving the car, bus or the owner of the place or building and nothing have to do with the disable person,do not allow this happen to you.
      6 years with wheelchair,only ones a bus driver ask my wife to touch the ramp as the drivers back hurt [the driver say] I tell him to go home and sent a healthy driver to lift the bus ramp.I sent a complaint letter to the bus office and an apologies letter I received few days later, that’s all.

    • avatar
      Zack garyfalou

      The ramp,any ramp, and anywhere is the responsibility,duty, of the owner,to the person driving the car, bus or the owner of the place or building and nothing have to do with the disable person,do not allow this happen to you.
      6 years with wheelchair,only ones a bus driver ask my wife to touch the ramp as the drivers back hurt [the driver say] I tell him to go home and sent a healthy driver to lift the bus ramp.I sent a complaint letter to the bus office and an apologise letter I received few days later, that’s all.

  13. avatar
    Al Young

    We need a law where ALL New developments commercial as well as private homes should all be built accessible from a certain point be built accessible, for example, entrance instead of a step, put a ramp/slope, wider halls, doors bathrooms big enough to facilitate accessibility. some thought in the position of sinks and toilets and showers.
    These apply to All public/commercial buildings including lifts, No need for separate toilets, just make all accessible removing the necessity to provide separate ones, currently they include baby changing facilities and too narrow to maneuver, to get from the wheelchair to the toilet and back again, you have to practically be a “Body Contortionist”. Cant lock the door because you are faced the wrong direction, sinks in the way. I have come across wheelchair toilets being a “Storage room” for mops and buckets, toilet tissue too far away etc.
    Just because there is a picture of a wheelchair on the door does not mean it is accessible and there is no proper monitoring.

  14. avatar
    Gillian Kemp

    More loos please! Currently find it hard to get out and about because of the lack of toilet facilities. Journeys have to be planned around toilet locations. No toilets = no outing!

  15. avatar

    On a strategic level, using ‘inclusive design’ principles from the outset is key; but at a ‘micro’ level, street audits like this one from Edinburgh can help to declutter our streets

  16. avatar
    Zack garyfalou

    I am severely disabled and micro scooter user,for more than 5 years,one of the worse Countries to go to is Greece, no pharmacy with ramps,no even mobile ramp, big steps with plenty steps,shops are the same, I had to report a shop which the inspectors closed dawn for a month before the shop order a ramp.
    In 4 years all over Europe mast have free access every and anywhere for disabled people.

  17. avatar
    Carmen Dowling

    It’s all in the planning, why create new buildings without access for everyone, not just select able bodied people. It might be much more cost effective rather than having to adapt them later on. So many changes to buildings including culture, i.e. peoples thinking around disability.

  18. avatar

    As many responses reference planning is essential to have buildings, streetscapes, etc fully accessible to people with mobility and sight impairments by excluding steps and widening doors hallways etc. Also ensuring all persons can open doors regardless of impairments such as limited strength, arm movements, height etc.
    The important thing to be aware of is that planning benefits not only persons with a disability and the elderly and also those with young children or pushing prams, carrying heavy or bulky items etc, etc.
    Education of our architects, builders and city officials and a change of culture for many city residents or visitors through education and awareness information are also essential to a more inclusive future for all people.

  19. avatar
    Ana Lima

    Romualdo Santos, você tava trabalhando com isso não era? Usa o tradutor e da uma olhada, parece interessante.

  20. avatar
    Ana Lima

    Romualdo Santos, você tava trabalhando com isso não era? Usa o tradutor e da uma olhada, parece interessante.

  21. avatar
    Wolfgang Mizelli

    for most buildings you need semtex, the rest depends on the answer to the question who is mr and mrs everybody. devolping accessible is cheaper then to adapt.

  22. avatar
    Brian Seaman

    In brief:

    1/ Provide detailed, clear and accurate access information via accessible websites. This would apply to all aspects for any visitor or resident and would include: travel; parking; public transport; street environments; accommodation; attractions; eating out; public WCs; public spaces; access to beaches etc. Involve disabled people in the process of establishing what is already accessible – and what needs improvement.

    2/ Ensure widespread availability and take-up of disability awareness training for those who provide services to the public. Set benchmarks to measure how effective this has been.

    3/ Improve physical access to all facilities that are used by the public. Where this is impossible, review providing services in an alternative way e.g.: virtual tours at historic sites.

    I’ve undertaken access audits of city centres and these are some of the key elements I’ve looked at.

  23. avatar
    Ivor Ambrose

    Are there better ways to design cities so they are more accessible for everybody?

    – Yes of course there are! And a great many centres of learning, professional bodies, institutions and NGOs have examined this question for over half a century, coming up with many careful analyses and vital solutions to this multi-facetted problem. We also have laws in all EU Member States and other countries across the globe that REQUIRE accessibility for people with disabilities as part of building and planning regulations. There are international Standards that show how to design an accessible built environment.

    But as several contributors point out: laws on accessibility are not enforced – a fact that is widespread and obvious to many disabled people every day.

    The odd thing is that while good practices, laws and standards on accessibility do exist, the policy makers and those who educate planners and designers hardly ever require their students to learn about accessibility issues and only scant attention is paid to knowing the laws that are in place.

    In the USA, that has instituted the famed “Americans with Disabilities Act”, cities, building owners and even Website owners are taken to court if they infringe the law… but, paradoxically, universities and design schools are not punished if they neglect to teach the precepts of accessibility and Universal Design to their students. Is it reasonable to expect planners and designers to produce accessible cities if they have never been taught how?

    Education is the big barrier and this is where more effort is required. So as long as we, as a society, do not REQUIRE education in disability awareness, accessibility and Universal Design, the progress towards making cities accessible and liveable for all citizens (and visitors) will only be sporadic, haphazard and painfully slow.

    I would dearly love NOT to have this “debate” (yet again) in 5 or 10 years time!
    It is time to act now! Let’s make Disabled Access, Diversity and Universal Design required, taught courses in every design school, architecture and planning degree – and in computer science and engineering too! Make the same courses available to qualified professionals through vocational “top-up” courses and other means. When the current and next generations of professionals have been given an adequate education, then I hope we will start to see progress on accessibility across the board.

    • avatar
      Karen L. Davis

      So right, Ivor.

    • avatar

      stong argument

  24. avatar
    Andy Renals

    I’d endorse the comments made by Ivor Ambrose. We have the necessary design codes and regulations. What we now need is leadership and advocacy that will ensure progress on accessibility. Having lighting, heating and ventilating, wc’s and other services in buildings are all achieved pretty much straightforwardly. This needs to be true of building accessibility.

  25. avatar
    Nando Aidos

    Get cars out of the way. Our society has given priority to cars (to rich people who can afford them) to the detriment of pedestrians and other people who cannot drive cars. Just get those priorities right and the problem will be solved for disabled people and everybody else.

  26. avatar

    Get cars out of the way.
    Our society has given priority to cars (to rich people who can afford them) to the detriment of pedestrians and other people who cannot drive cars. Just get those priorities right and the problem will be solved for disabled people and everybody else.

  27. avatar
    Andrej Němec

    Pay unemployment benefits upon volunteering activities; among others, support to disabled people. Volunteers with a badge that walk around the city to help disabled people (blind people to walk along stairs or cross a traffic light, paraplegic ones to go on a bus etc.) Smartphone applications to call for their help.
    Include all dedicated facilities in urban planning and make as a requirement the examination of commissions of disabled people representatives before approval.

  28. avatar

    Schools should be going into more detail on the types of disabilities there are in the world and how even though people who have them are not to be treated differently. Because this is the problem, people feel they shouldn’t get involved if they see a person in a wheelchair in trouble because they are scared of the consequences. This is a big issue, people shouldn’t be scared of it they should be confident. Society should help them out and then afterwards feel great about themselves because they have helped somebody in need of help. We wouldn’t have to pay loads of money for new facilities for disabled people so they don’t have to ask for help. If only everybody was more aware people would be more understanding and help out instead of walking past and ignoring. I’m not saying everybody is like this, there are many people who do so much to help anybody whether they have a terminal illness or have just broken their leg. I really just wanted to make awareness because I hate the fact that this subject has been ignored for so long. There has been so much conversation on the EU and immigration (I’m not implying that is not important) that certain subjects that should be more notice has had its significance taken off them. My best friend is in a wheelchair, but when I tell people I’m going to see her I’m like “I’m going to see my friend!” I don’t go into detail and tell them she’s in a wheel chair or explain her illness because she doesn’t need their sympathy. Its nice that people care but that’s not what she wants, she just wants to be like everybody else. If they do find out that she is in a wheelchair one of my other friends said to me “you never told me she was disabled” and I just think its stupid. Like what is the point? what difference does it make? Did you really need to know? like what difference does it make to the situation I don’t understand sometimes. Now I’m just ranting on…but its important and I want people to know about it.
    Thanks for your time

  29. avatar
    Steffen Schwarz

    Start by referring to them as persons with disabilities, putting the person first rather than the disability. I’d like to see much more regulation on that subject too from the EU. Like the ban on smoking in restaurants.

  30. avatar
    Δημήτρης Κοκκώνης

    By cutting sidewalks to make bicycle lanes, and adding traffic signs, bushes, traffic lamps, recycle containers on the remaining sidewalk as it happens under EU sponsored programs in my home city of Amaroussion, Greece?

  31. avatar
    Daniel Parvanov

    EU is driving in the right direction on that… it will not happened over one night or 1 year as it is requires mass infrastructure changes … Just keep going and we will get there…

  32. avatar
    Manaswi Saha

    We are working on a set of new tools that are tailored for people with disabilities, starting with mobility impaired people. We have built a tool that will let anyone in the world submit accessibility information (e.g. existence/absence of sidewalk, curb ramps, surface issues etc.) of cities *remotely*. We will use the collected data to build navigation and mapping tools for people with disabilities. Our vision is that our tools will someday be adopted/incorporated by major applications such as Google Maps.

    Check out our project:

    • avatar

      Manaswi– I would like to talk with you and/or Kotaro Hara about the possibility of expanding the reach of “Project Sidewalk” and creating a new demonstration site in Austin, Texas. Please ontact me at Darren Bates,

  33. avatar

    In terms of wheelchair access- it doesn’t have to necessarily be a technological advance to make places more accessible. What about a simple architectural change to stairs for example, whereby a slope could be made in a slight zig-zag formation almost reaching the width of the stairs, enabling both the stairs and the slope to be used.

  34. avatar
    Lynda noble

    We ultermatly need more disabled people to be involved form the grass roots of all new plans for access, only then will we have equal acsess for all

  35. avatar
    PickUp Australia

    Accessibility is a basic right for everyone. Inaccessible cities mean that there are citizens that are shut out participating and living their lives to the fullest potential. Our cities need to be better designed to include everyone.

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