The “Barrier-Free” Concept

Barrier-free building modification consists of modifying buildings or facilities so that they can be used by people who are disabled or have physical impairments.

The term is used primarily in Japan and non-English speaking countries (e.g. German: Barrierefreiheit; Finnish: Esteettömyys), while in English-speaking countries, terms such as “accessibility” and “handicapped accessible” dominate in regular everyday use.

An example of barrier-free design would be installing a ramp for wheelchairs alongside, or in place of, steps.

Barrier-free is also a term that applies to handicap accessibility in situations where legal codes such as the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 – a law focusing on all building aspects, products and design that is based on the concept of respecting human rights – don’t make specifications.

In the late 1990s any element which could make the use of the environment inconvenient was considered a barrier, for example poor public street lighting. In the case of new buildings, however, the idea of barrier free modification has largely been superseded by the concept of universal design, which seeks to design things from the outset to support easy access.

Freeing a building of barriers can mean:

  • Recognizing the features that could form barriers for some people
  • Thinking inclusively about the whole spectrum of impairments
  • Reviewing everything from the whole structure to small details, like the visibility of elevator buttons
  • Seeking feedback from users and learning from mistakes

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