“What do you notice looking around?”, Kyra asks in the hallway of the Langeveld building. She answers the question herself: “It’s grey on grey on grey: grey floors, grey walls, grey stairs. Well, if you’re visually impaired, you’re almost certainly going to take a fall – mark my words. There is not enough contrast.” Shortly after the official opening of the building, a number of students and an employee with a functional impairment toured the building on the invitation of the Real estate & facilities department, which, in Kyra’s opinion, resulted in a long list of ‘areas of improvement’. “Our visually impaired student ran into tremendous difficulties. For example, in the lecture halls, he kept running into raised grey steps.” According to a spokesperson for the university, the group will reconvene in ‘four to six weeks’ to find out which adjustments will be made and which will not.

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The university describes the building as being green, bright, and sustainable. However, the experiences of the group of people with a functional impairment were very different. Kyra points to the heavy doors leading to the lifts and lavatories. “Of the four people in wheelchairs who took part in the tour, only one person managed to open the door. Not everyone in a wheelchair has the same abilities. For many people, the power plugs are positioned either too low or too far down the table. I’m able to push the button to the lift, but because it’s in a corner rather than along the long wall, you won’t be able to reach it if you’re in an electric wheelchair.”

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This is how most people experience the building: with lots of greenery and wood. Those who are in a wheelchair, get much less of that. Image credit: Ali Alshamayleh

Forewarned

“Every building can be constructed in a way that is accessible without any additional costs. However, this is something that has to be considered in time during the design process”, says Willem Jagersma of PBTconsult. The engineering and consultancy firm specialises in structural issues related to physical accessibility. Erasmus University was a client of the firm and instructed PBT to assess the Langeveld building. “We told the university: ‘this building may never be fully accessible’.”

Although Jagersma declined to mention the specific aspects that PBT raised
due to the confidential relationship with the university, he did confirm that it
was a long list. Moreover, he recalled the example of the overly heavy
lavatory doors. “The door closers on the lavatories are necessary because
the doors are part of a fire-resistant wall. For fire safety reasons, that door
needs to close and therefore needs to be heavy – however, this is not
convenient for people with a functional impairment. This means that either fire safety – or
the toilets themselves – should have been designed differently.”

‘What we are seeing is that physical accessibility to buildings falls by the wayside if it is not made obligatory’

Thijs Hardick, Ieder(in)

The UN Convention on Disabilities, which has been in force in the Netherlands since 2016, states that people with a functional impairment may not be excluded from participation in society. The Dutch Buildings Decree sets out requirements for accessible buildings. “Both lack accurate definitions regarding accessibility”, says Thijs Hardick from Ieder(in), an advocate for people with a functional impairment or chronic illness. “As a result, this is left to the market and what we are seeing is that physical accessibility to buildings falls by the wayside if it is not made obligatory. Tenders will mostly go the way of affordability, which is why it’s important to enshrine more aspects in law.” Hardick says that although work is ongoing on these regulations at various levels, he does expect that his organisation will still have a great deal of lobbying to do in the years to come.

“A highly unique approach”

Jagersma identifies with Hardick’s comments. The law on its own is insufficient and there are already various quality marks in existence – but no national quality standard. PBTconsult then developed its own, the Comprehensive Accessibility Standard (Integrale Toegankelijkheidsstandaard), which is what Erasmus University had been working with over the past eight to ten years. However, yet another standard was subsequently chosen for this building: the international NEN-ISO 21542 standard. “It was selected due to the fact that it aligns best with the accessibility standard currently being developed by the government and which is expected to be introduced by 2023”, says an EUR spokesperson in a written response to the questions submitted by EM.

Jagersma believes that the approach to the construction of the Langeveld building was “highly unique”. The international quality standard was only chosen once the plans for the building had already been finalised, whereas a number of fundamental choices, such as in relation to fire safety, had already been made. “At that point, it was too late.”

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The coffee machine is too high for Kyra. From her perspective, she can’t see the screen well either. Image credit: Shrey Khurana

The university asserts that it acted in accordance with the rules. The construction project was awarded to BAM through a European tendering procedure. “According to the contract, the contractor is responsible for the design and construction in accordance with accessibility requirements.

During that phase, EUR has no formal right of participation. EUR, however, was aware of signs that the building did not yet comply with the standard in terms of accessibility. BAM was subsequently advised to address those issues. From a legal standpoint, at that stage, EUR cannot do anymore than issue a recommendation.”

Lack of social inaccessibility

Kyra cites several other examples in relation to the lack of accessibility of the building. “Acoustically, the lecture halls upstairs are a nightmare for the hearing impaired. Nor is there any special system in place to transmit sound to hearing aids.” She was, however, pleased with the sound-dampening floor.

(hoofdfoto) Kyra Mulders1 – Sanne van der Most – ontoegankelijke campus

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Kyra also found the layout of the lecture halls on ground floor jarring due to the fact that most of the space is taken up by incrementally raised tiers containing fixed rows of tables and chairs. In some rooms, an extra table has been added that sits at a right angle to the other tables, which is meant for students in a wheelchair. Kyra feels this is an isolated location. “The building is an example of how lack of physical accessibility can lead to lack of social accessibility. The lecture halls is where you make friends, but if everyone is sat in the back: I’m sat there on my own.” Nor is the layout of the lecture halls on the other floors ideal. The tables are often too cramped for two people to sit at if one of them is in a wheelchair. “These are the same tables they use at the Polak building, so this issue has been raised before.

Hope

A spokesperson for the university accounts for the situation as a case in which these myriad requirements, standards and needs “may contradict one another”. The interim modification of a programme of requirements, which includes issues such as accessibility, is difficult to do with finalised contracts and fixed schedules, the spokesperson says, continuing that “this is something we wish to have better control of in relation to future projects like this. We want our buildings to be accessible to all our students, employees and visitors and we are confident this is something we can achieve.”

‘It’s at that point that as a student with a functional impairment you feel you’re valued less at this university’

Kyra, Philosophy Student

Kyra hopes that students and employees with a functional impairment are able to enjoy the Langeveld building just as much as people without. She understands that the emphasis is on stairs and therefore on climbing stairs, as this is healthy. “But all the wood, the greenery, and the pretty corners are all in the central atrium. Once you take the lift up to lectures, there’s hardly any of that. The spaces I see are made of concrete and are cold, bleak and grey. It’s at that point that as a student with a functional impairment you feel you’re valued less at this university.”

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The seats in the lecture halls on the ground floor are on gray elevations. In some rooms a separate table has been set up for people in wheelchairs. Image credit: Shrey Khurana
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