Out on the street

Dick Houtzager

One behind the other, the couple walks along the street, both holding white canes. "If that edge is no longer there, you have to pay attention," the man warns, as his cane slides over the grass next to the newly constructed pavement. "I don't understand why they didn't finish that edge," the woman says. A little later, when crossing a road, the man explains: "I have to pay attention on the other side, because there is a lamp-post in the middle of the pedestrian crossing." He makes his way around the post and turns right on the pavement.

I am watching images from the EO documentary "Op de tast". The film is about a couple who have lived independently in a flat in Amsterdam Slotervaart for years. The camera follows them and records what it is like to experience daily life as a blind person.

The two scenes in the film show what it is like to use public space as a person with a visual impairment. For sighted people, use of pavements and pedestrian crossings goes without saying. You walk around an obstacle and devote no further thought to it. But for people who are blind or visually impaired, a trip to the supermarket can itself be a challenge. And that also applies to many wheelchair users and people with other impairments. In the film, I see the lamp-post on the crossing and I wonder how it is possible that such an object can have been so positioned, and why the pedestrian crossing was built in that particular spot when, if it had been placed a few meters to the right, nobody would have been bothered by it.

If you think about it, you can often come up with easy solutions for these kinds of obstacles. When the designer of roads pays attention to the use of streets, pavements and crossings for everybody, simple and cheap solutions can be devised. Obviously, this works much better than having to adjust those facilities at a later stage. But is there enough thought about accessibility? Is there enough awareness to ask that question at all? Do the rules for designing urban space provide guidelines for accessibility? Or is it even classed as discrimination if a disabled person is disadvantaged because public space is obstructed?

Together with Disability Studies in the Netherlands, I am looking at these questions. We are commissioned by the University of Leeds (UK) to conduct research into the accessibility of public spaces for disabled persons. I will be describing the laws and regulations that apply to the design, maintenance and management of streets and pavements. In 2016, the Netherlands ratified the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. But has that led to changes in the rules regarding public space?

Later, together with disabled persons, we will investigate how the accessibility of public space has been put into practice. We are going to interview people and ask them to tell their stories of how inaccessible streets have affected their lives, and make films of those streets, to give others a sense of what it's like to move around the city when you have an impairment. With the results, we hope to help the government and others find solutions.

At the end, the documentary shows how the Amsterdam couple moves to an adapted apartment in a wooded area. I can't help wondering if they would have made the decision to move had their living environment in the city been adapted.


Dick Houtzager is a lawyer and freelance researcher. He was a member of the Dutch College of Human Rights with a focus on people with a disability. Currently, he works parttime for ZonMW. For DSiN he is conducting the research project 'Inclusive Public Space: Law, Universality and Difference in the Accessibility of Streets'.