With Paris officially awarded the 2024 Olympic and Paralympic Games, the issue of better disabled access across the capital is more important than ever.
Over the past 20 years, the French capital has made great strides transforming buildings formerly inaccessible – and even in changing the terminology, from “disabled or handicapped persons” to those “in a situation of disability”.
A number of factors forced it: increasingly applied laws, active associations defending the rights of those with disabilities, public awareness, and architects such as Edouard Pastor, a leading specialist in accessibility.
Mr Pastor sometimes uses a wheelchair due to a childhood accident that permanently damaged one leg, but said: “My own handicap didn’t lead me to becoming an architect but I feel I’m a good consultant because in addition to my know-how I live in a situation of disability and therefore I am aware of the sense of exclusion that can come with it.
“I can have the impression of being very small when I’m using the wheelchair”.
Laws have demanded access improvements since 1991 but the first major push came with the 2005 Disability Law, which codified the need to create conditions for autonomy and participation for all.
It applied to owners of private and public property to which the public have access.
Although overly optimistic, it set the stage for the Agenda d’accessibilité programmée in 2014 that requires such owners to set a timetable to render properties accessible over three, six or nine years, depending on complexity, feasibility and cost.
Known as Ad’AP, it takes a major step forward this month as it stipulates that a Register of Accessibility must be freely consultable from October 20, detailing current accessibility and timetabled improvements.
Now Paris has been awarded the 2024 Olympic and Paralympic Games, that will likely accelerate the move to improve accessibility, as the 2012 Games did for London.
But Mr Pastor said it was not just the Olympics that made London more accessible. It was also because the British were “less utopian” in their view of accessibility. They understood early on the interest of ‘design for all,’ meaning accessibility measures should serve the greatest number of people, including those with disabilities.
“In France, we’re more regulatory; we prefer to maintain a conformity in the slope of a ramp. If we can’t do it, we’ll propose a secondary access.
“That may seem correct but in Anglo-Saxon countries that would be discriminatory. They’d rather allow everyone to use the same entrance even if it means a slightly higher ramp slope.”
Mr Pastor has been involved in accessibility surveys for a number of Paris monuments, including the Eiffel Tower, Palais-Royal, Comédie Française Theatre, Pompidou Centre, National Archives, National Library, and the Trocadero’s Musée de l’Homme.
An idea of his task comes from his work on the Eiffel Tower where he outlined steps to render it safer for visually impaired visitors at risk of bumping into sloping girders or unable to hold securely onto rails or climb slippery steps.
It was impossible to modify Eiffel’s work by moving girders and visually inappropriate to to fit cushioning, so Mr Pastor suggested creating a clear safe path to avoid girders, along with anti-slip steps and orientation tables with braille. On wheelchair access, the first and second levels are already accessible, but the top level has an exemption due limited evacuation space should the lifts fail.
His suggestions allow several solutions, so the firms realising the project develop the final plans. The work is due to be complete in five or six years.
While his role is to assess and then propose solutions, he resists insisting that all historic building be adapted at any cost to the building’s integrity or expected use.
The Comédie Française is a good example where a lengthy restoration of the premier repertory theatre, the Salle Richelieu, was planned and he suggested amending wheelchair rules.
These say that for every 50 seats a theatre must have space for two wheelchairs and Mr Pastor said: “On a typical night there might be two people in wheelchairs, occasionally a small group. But for a theatre with more than 800 seats that would mean eliminating dozens of seats to make space for 16 or so wheelchairs, space that would largely be unused.”
His suggestion was to create 10 wheelchair places plus flexible seating to be removed if needed.
Wheelchair access, he said, involves far more than simple seating spaces: lifts, toilets and bar area must also be adapted.
For the bar, he did not want to alter the bar counter so that a wheelchair could roll under it – so suggested getting bar staff to deliver orders to a separate wheelchair accessible table.
The Pompidou Centre, while only 40 years old, was built when wheelchair accessibility was starting to be recognised but was not designed for the needs of the visually impaired.
Like the Eiffel Tower, it has problem areas and he suggested making access safer though improved lighting, contrasting lines on steps and anti-slip materials.
Gardens, too, raise questions of accessibility for a visually impaired person “who, with each step, asks himself if he’s going to encounter an obstacle or slip or hit something”.
So he worked to improve the Tuileries Gardens while respecting André Le Nôtre’s 17th-century work.
Though lagging compared to London, Mr Pastor said France was now to the fore, at least theoretically, in recognising four types of disability to be addressed in spaces and buildings that receive the public.
While handicap accessibility was once viewed as adapting buildings for people in wheelchairs, it has come increasingly to refer to four categories of disability: motor, hearing, visual and mental/intellectual.
“We’ve made much progress in integrating the first three types of disability,” said Mr Pastor. “In the next three or four years intellectual disability will come to the forefront. It’s the most complicated to understand, until one thinks about one’s own experiences.”
Travellers need only imagine visiting China and being unable to decipher Chinese signs.
Further challenges lie in the future with French statistics agency Insee saying 20% of the population was in a situation of disability in 2016. Plus, there are about 800,000 pregnant women per year and 2.4million children under three, all with potential access problems – like the 11% of the population who will be over 75 by 2025.
His primary role now is as a consultant, adviser and auditor, assisting clients and project managers in defining, planning and programming accessibility for a property. He said: “Accessibility was long seen as an add-on, but since Ad’AP, I’m consulted before the project’s overall architect arrives in order to set broad principles.”
Not everything can be rendered accessible, he said, with four categories exempted: where the building structure cannot be modified, where the heritage value must be protected (such as where changes would degrade the site), where the cost would be unreasonable, and where the modifications would be unreasonable.
He founded the firm Handigo in 2008 and it now has two architects, three city planning experts/programmists and a part-time secretary working on contracts as varied as making accessibility more uniform in EU buildings and a redesign of the Musée de l’Homme at Trocadero in Paris.
Built in 1937, the museum’s interior was mostly gutted and rebuilt and Handigo was involved in all stages, even working with the museographers and scenographers to ensure full accessibility.
Unbeknown to most visitors the museum allows access for all four types of disability with display cases having room underneath to allow for someone in a wheelchair, lighting and signage sufficiently contrasted and large enough to be read by the visually impaired, braille notices, adapted acoustics and an intuitive flow.
He noted that historical monument architects were “often wary that rendering a building accessible will denature the structure.
“They see that as an obligation of use. But accessibility has a negative connotation though it’s also part of its contemporary use.
“A structure’s adaptation may seem correct but from the point of view of someone living in a situation of disability it feels completely off the mark.
“It’s possible to do something nice, something beautiful, and to remove the negative connotations of accessibility.”