Accessible Environment: Federal Programme and Private Life

Audio description: This is a colour photo. A white cane with a cylinder-shaped tip is touching yellow guidance tactile tiles. The cane’s lower segment is coloured in red. Behind the cane, there is a vague outline of human legs wearing brown boots and black trousers.

The term “accessible (or barrier-free) environment” is applied to elements of an environment that are adapted for people with physical, sensory and intellectual impairments. The term was originally used to characterise buildings and facilities that could be used by people in wheelchairs. But later this term started to include standards that would suit people with other types of disability. That is why today the term implies not only the presence of ramps, wide door frames and specially equipped lavatories, but also the way of delivering information to people with hearing or vision impairments or with mental conditions. Speaking of the accessibility of facilities, we mean that they are architecturally and socially adapted.

Methodological recommendations made by the Ministry of Health and Social Development dating from 2012 suggest adhering to the principle of two senses: any information, be it a warning, a signal or a notification, should be open to perception by at least two senses at once – visually, by touch or by ear. The means of information available to touch include relief guidance paths, signs, tactile plans and informational plates printed in Braille. Those perceptible by ear include “talking” traffic lights and audio notifications, for example, in transport, as well as induction loops, audio guides and equipment for audio description in theatres and museums. Visual information should be bright and contrasting for the convenience of the deaf and the partially visually impaired.

Accessible Environment Programme (2011–2025)

Since 2011, Russia has been implementing the state Accessible Environment Programme encompassing various aspects of life of society and that of the disabled. To date, the Programme has been extended until 2025. This is systematic work that implies law-making, scientific and technological research, practical implementation and social initiatives. One of the main laws that is being updated within the framework of the Programme is Federal Law No.181-FZ (passed in 1995) “On Social Protection of the Disabled in the Russian Federation”, the latest edition of which was passed in 2017. It is this law that provides architectural and social accessibility of buildings and constructions: according to the document, disabled people should have the possibility to access socially important facilities and use all means of transport, communication and information.

Many regions have issued their own legal regulations clarifying enforcement of the law on a municipal level. Local acts (in addition to GOST standards) often regulate the installation of audible traffic lights and placement of tactile paving tiles. That is why the inhabitants of different cities and towns have, probably, noticed the difference in the quantity and sound of traffic lights that not only emit signals of different register and frequency, but also “talk” in a human voice. For example, the loudspeakers on “talking” traffic lights in Saint Petersburg and Sochi countdown aloud the seconds left for pedestrians to cross the street. In the summer of 2018, these traffic lights also appeared in the centre of Moscow, and for the World Cup the announcements were being repeated in English. By the way, traffic lights in Saint Petersburg, in addition to a countdown, also announce the name of the street which can be crossed at the moment, thus allowing visually impaired pedestrians to orientate themselves more accurately. Also, in Sevastopol, which has joined the Programme recently, the first audible traffic lights were installed only in 2017 at the initiative of social organisations.

Audio description: This is a colour photo. Two Labradors – a pale-yellow and a black one – wearing harnesses are sitting on the grass. They are both looking sadly to one side. Behind the light-coloured dog, there is a partly visible person wearing a light-green jacket, jeans and white trainers; he or she is holding a white cane. Behind the black Labrador, there are two pairs of legs – wearing a skirt and a pair of jeans respectively.

The same law opens unimpeded access for guide dogs to facilities of social infrastructure. In other words, a dog can be brought to public, administrative and production buildings, sports and recreational venues, restaurants and cafes, cultural and educational institutions, transport etc. According to the rules, a dog must wear a muzzle and a special harness while its owner must carry documents proving that this is a trained guide dog. If, for some reason, the dog is not allowed inside, it should be provided with a place to rest, and its blind owner – with an assistant inside the building. All types of public city or intercity transport are open to people travelling with guide dogs. Obviously, it should be expected that not all employees of a facility have previous experience of interacting with a visually impaired person accompanied by a guide dog. In that case, it should be explained to them how to behave and interact with a guide dog “on duty”.

Accessibility of public transport

All Russian airports and railway stations provide passenger mobility services. They are used by disabled passengers, mothers travelling with small children, by seniors, unaccompanied minors, big groups of children and just passengers who suddenly start feeling unwell during their trip. The same types of services exist on intercity coaches, local trains and aeroexpresses between various destinations. In Moscow and Saint Petersburg, mobility services are provided in the underground as well. You can make a reservation for accompaniment by calling the corresponding departments (the telephone numbers can be found on the official websites). A disabled passenger can also ask their carriage conductor, bus driver or a representative of the airline to contact an employee of the corresponding mobility service.

Audio description: In a colour photo, there is a young man in a wheelchair on an underground escalator. He is wearing glasses, a woolly hat, black trousers and a navy-blue jacket with a red stripe. He has a small black bag over his shoulder. The young man is smiling. Behind him, there are two men supporting his wheelchair; they are wearing bright yellow-and-red jackets, which are part of the uniform for the staff of the Passenger Mobility Centre of the Moscow Underground.

At the same time, there is a big gap in overground transport accessibility for the visually impaired: it is extremely difficult for a person with restricted vision to establish the number of an arriving bus, trolleybus or tram. Obviously, visually impaired people who regularly travel with a white cane and without an assistant have learnt to find a way to overcome this problem. However, a proper solution on an official level could help avoid unnecessary difficulties.

The work is now underway in two areas. On the one hand, computer software is being developed to convey information about arriving vehicles to smartphones of the visually impaired. On the other hand, there have been discussions for several years regarding the possibility to install external loudspeakers on buses, trolleybuses and trams to announce their number and route. One or both of these systems could work successfully under two conditions: the process should be automated, and all transport units should be suitably equipped.

Universal design

In 2006, the Russian Federation ratified the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (though without the Optional Protocol thereto). The second article of the Convention describes “universal design” as “the design of products, environments, programmes and services to be usable by all people, to the greatest extent possible, without the need for adaptation or specialized design”.

On examination of separate elements of architectural, social and informational accessibility of an environment, it becomes obvious that a well-conceived and properly working system proves beneficial not only to the disabled, but to all members of society. For example, the announcement of stops on public transport or of train arrivals and departures at railway stations is useful to everyone; museum audio guides are being used by all kinds of visitors, whilst a lowered kerb at pedestrian crossings is convenient for a mother with a pushchair, a person in a wheelchair, a cyclist, and is an excellent reference point for a blind person with a white cane.

Yet, according to legal expert, associate professor of South Ural State University Yulia Shumova, it is very difficult to achieve universal design in all the elements of an environment. “It should be understood that it will never be convenient for everyone,” remarks Yulia. “The question of universal design hasn't yet been solved among experts so research and discussions are still in progress. For example, the kerb. It would be so convenient if it didn’t exist at all – convenient for everyone except for the visually impaired because they use a kerb as a shoreline, determine their direction and establish the border between the pavement and road. So it’s impossible to completely eliminate the kerbs. I would say that, from a practical point of view, universal design is just a rational approach that takes into account the interests of all citizens and not only those with disabilities.”

Disputes, violations and fines

The provisions of the UN Convention are placed higher than any state law – they can be referred to both in the implementation of the Federal Programme and in controversial points. The year 2014 saw the adoption of Federal Law No.419 “On Amendments to Certain Laws of the Russian Federation on Social Protection of Persons with Disabilities Following the Ratification of the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities”. The law clarifies and secures the provisions that enable easy access to facilities of cultural, social, transport and engineering infrastructure. Administrative punishments in the form of fines for failure to observe the provisions, though still rather insignificant (up to 3,000 roubles for employees and up to 30,000 roubles for legal entities), are also reflected in the law, which can be referred to, should a violation be detected. Apart from a paltry fine, the infringer – the building owner or organisation founder – can be forced to correct the defects.

A notification about a malfunction or lack of accessible environment elements on the streets of a city can usually be left on the city’s website, such as for Moscow, where it will be automatically sent to the right section. The matters of inaccessibility of any facilities or services can be forwarded to a prosecutor or even a court (a prosecutor has the right to initiate a lawsuit on their own as well) or the Commissioner for Human Rights, the administration of the Federal Service for Surveillance on Consumer Rights Protection and Human Wellbeing (Rospotrebnadzor), the administration of the corresponding region or city, or directly to the head of the establishment. Persons with disabilities are entitled to free legal aid and are relieved of a number of legal fees. However, at first it should be attempted to solve a problem by means of negotiations.

Audio description: In the centre of a colour photo, there is a sign on asphalt – a person in a wheelchair is drawn as a white silhouette on a blue background. Above, there is a blue rectangle with a white arrow pointing to the right. On the right-hand side, there are orange horizontal guidance bars of tactile tiles. Under the sign, there are guidance circles in the same colour.

While talking about the Town Planning Code and the certification of buildings, Yulia Shumova mentions two aspects that are not beneficial for the general situation. First of all, people who create an accessible environment are often unfamiliar with the real needs of the disabled. They create an ideal project – a picture that has nothing in common with reality and the public. Secondly, the process of acceptance of a building or facility itself seems confusing. The accepting commission sees that, from the formal point of view, everything meets the standards – there are tactile tiles, ramps etc. – and gives its approval to the building. However, when people with disabilities come, they wonder how all these facilities can be used. Usually, the proprietor does not want to change anything radically, assuming that as customers with disabilities have not been visiting his or her facility, they are not going to do so in the future – so there will be no complaints. As for the disabled customers, they have nothing left to do but put up with it and adapt.

“The control should be performed not by Rospotrebnadzor or the prosecutor's office, but by the consumers themselves. Otherwise, the question arises – why and for whom is all this being done?” argues Yulia.

The implementation of the Accessible Environment Programme could reach a new level, should specialists with disabilities become involved in all stages of this work, starting with the creation of GOST and other standards, as well as discussions of means of architectural and social accessibility and ending with the designing and accepting of facilities for various purposes. “After all, hospitals and Pension Funds are not the only places that the disabled go to,” remarks Yulia.

Saying that, according to Yulia, what matters most is not the total length of tactile tiles or the quantity of audible traffic lights, but motivation and communication. The quantity of accessible environment elements will not make disabled people more active and will not help people with impairments get acquainted with those without them. “The main problem is not in architectural accessibility, but in the willingness of society to accept disabled people and their own willingness to be part of society. But this cannot be regulated by any law,” concludes Yulia Shumova.