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Accessibility & the Environment

This website is archived for historical purposes and is no longer being maintained or updated.

The Healthy Community Design Initiative, also known as the Built Environment and Health Initiative, is no longer a funded program and the information on this website is not being reviewed and updated on a regular basis.


man in wheelchair

Poorly designed communities can make it difficult for people with mobility impairments or other disabling conditions to move about their environment; consequently, people with a disability often are more vulnerable to environmental barriers.

Barrier attributes within our environment can include

  • Absence of ramps for wheelchairs
  • Lack of depressed curbs (periodic breaks in curbs that act as ramps)
  • Narrow doorways that cannot accommodate various assistive devices, such as wheelchairs and walkers
  • Lack of access to mass transit routes or other public services.

In one major U.S. city, researchers found that three out of five people with disabilities and elderly persons do not have sidewalks between their residences and the nearest bus stop. An even greater percentage of households lack curb cuts (71%) and bus shelters (76%) close to bus stops. Researchers also determined that close to 50% of the elderly and people with disabilities live within two blocks of a bus stop, but that the lack of sidewalks, curb cuts, and bus shelters actually made use of the transportation system impossible, creating a situation where fewer than 10% of such persons use public transportation. Such environmental barriers can affect the access that people with a disability have to basic health care, social services, and other necessary activities.

Public health has helped address these problems in many communities by promoting the use of universal design in community planning and architectural decisions. The concept of universal design maintains that all products, environments, and communications should be designed to consider the needs of the widest possible array of users.

Universal design, as defined by the National Endowment for the Arts, goes beyond the mere provision of special features for various segments of the population. Instead, universal design emphasizes a creative approach that is more inclusive — one that asks at the outset of the design process how a product, graphic communication, building, or landscape can be made both aesthetically pleasing and functional for the greatest number of users. Designs resulting from this approach are more likely to serve a wider array of people: individuals who have temporary disabilities, people who have permanent disabilities, and everyone whose abilities change with age.

For more information about accessibility & the environment, refer to the following resources:

National Center on Birth Defects and Developmental Disabilities – Disability and Health
The goal of the Disability and Health team at NCBDDD is to promote the health and well-being of the estimated 54 million people with disabilities living in the United States. The NCBDDD Web site includes information on accessibility in products and environments

AARP Policy Institute (US). Preserving affordability and access in livable communities: subsidized housing opportunities near transit and the 50+ population [PDF – 10 MB]. Washington, DC: AARP;2009.

AARP Policy Institute (US). Strategies to meet the housing needs of older adults [PDF – 135 KB]. Washington, DC: AARP;2010.

Additional information on accessibility and related topics can be found in the Additional Resources section.


Barreto R. The art of universal design: Designing for the 21st Century II Preconference, 2000 June 14. Available from URL:
urban_arts_institute/Barreto_UnivDesign_PAR23.pdf [PDF – 2.13 MB]

Gilderbloom J, Markham J. Creating the Accessible City. From: Housing quality among the elderly: a decade of changes. Int J Aging Hum Dev 1998; 46(1).

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  • Page last reviewed: October 15, 2009 (archived document)
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