Accessibility values: disability rights movements, policy regulations & smart devices in designing urban democracy in Europe

1) “Creative Accessibility Mapping Tour” CC by A. Weiland (SOZIALHELDEN)


Tomás S. Criado is currently developing ethnographic research on urban accessibility struggles and the creation, implementation, maintenance and supervision of sidewalk democracy projects as well as inclusive urbanism practices in Barcelona (in comparison with similar transformations in Europe). Focusing on the different knowledges being there mobilised–such as the different registers of value, the sensory practices of urban appreciation, and the articulation of bodily diverse experience–in diverse ‘documentation interfaces‘ (the different relational and more or less institutional or activist design situations of valuation: to frame, elicit or provoke into existence and discuss diverse bodily experiences and environmental/material affordances).

Context and aims

In the past two decades ‘urban accessibility’ has become a very important matter of concern in Europe, due to: citizenship struggles of different advocacy groups of people with disabilities or older people; and growing concern on the part of the policy making institutions at European, state, regional and municipal levels over population ageing and the everyday higher prevalence of chronic illnesses. In fact, in the whole EU, different regulatory bodies have started to promote different accessibility policies – such as building standards and specific sidewalk intervention norms – as a way to encourage social justice and equity values through the intervention of public space design. These endeavours are introducing new and very interesting socio-technical dynamics. Indeed, accessibility measures and values are creating new markets of urban infrastructures: new building standards (norms, handbooks, building procedures, etc.) and technological devices intervening in the urban space (such as in the increasingly important development of ‘smart’ urban accessibility solutions), requiring new forms of expertise so as to manage complex design and political regulations.

This project seeks to understand the epistemic, political and economic transformations that accessibility measures are entailing, building on STS warnings over the democratic deficit produced by expert divides and the subsequent concern to enhancing citizen participation in technoscientific issues. This will be done through mapping, analyzing and comparing ethnographically the ‘valuation practices’ of different actors involved in urban accessibility issues in Europe (notably, disability rights activists and technical experts such as architects and engineers). Special emphasis will be given to the collaborative analysis and discussion of different versions of ‘what count as accessible public spaces.’

The main aim is to shed some light on the current dynamics of ‘expertization’, as well as the socio-economic & epistemic transformations these ‘sensible’ infrastructural interventions might be implying. Such an approach might be of great ethical relevance in order to suggest helpful enhancements in the design and implementation of accessibility policies and measures for EU citizens’ social justice, equity and participation.

Methodology and case studies

(A) Map of laws, acts, norms, regulations and standardson public space accessibility.
Proposed case studies
• Disputes or discrepancies between local, regional and state regulatory bodies: Barcelona’s norms and standards, and their transformation according to the developmentof the 2014 Catalan Law of Urban Accessibility & the recent 561/VIV Spanish state regulations
• Nationwide projects and their different approaches to the standardization, implementation, and regulation of maintenance: Germany’s DIN 18040 & France’s Loi 2005-102
• Attempts at creating a European framework for urban accessibility: European Commission’s project of the European Accessibility Act.

(B) Ethnographic Case Studies and In-Depth Interviews
b.1. in-depth interviews with advocates and professionals
responsible for the construction of smart interfaces for the valuation of urban in/accessibility or the development of urban interventions

Proposed case studies
• Smartphone in/accessibility mapping apps: & App&Town (Spain); J’Accede (France); Wheelmap(Germany).
• Responsive and/or multisensory approaches to urban furniture accessible design: Ross Atkin Associates (UK) & Modellbaukasten Blindenleitsystem (Germany).

b.2. Observations of city hall supervisions of the implementation of accessibility laws and norms in projects concerning sidewalk reform/interventions.

Proposed case studies
• Following architects and urban planners in their daily activities (e.g. documentation practices, construction field-site supervision, etc.) as well as interviewing those civil servants and private professionals involved (e.g. municipal architects, urban designers, contractors & builders): Municipal Institute of People with Disabilities (Barcelona).

b.3. Interviews and observations of urban accessibility advocacy groups, following their technical work, political campaigns, design/media interventions for the sensitization of urban accessibility, and their urban accessibility interventions

Proposed case studies
• Open source and collaborative making of personal and urban accessibility infrastructures and interventions: Entorno a la silla (Barcelona) & SOZIALHELDEN (Berlin).
• Development of mediating artefacts and documentary interfaces for the communication of architectural design needs, or the sensitization of technicians to multi-sensory requirements: BBSB (Munich).
• Ongoing and organized political campaigns with urban accessibility issues at their core: Carrers per tothom platform actions to regulate ‘shared streets’ and their problems for blind and partially sighted people (Barcelona); ECOM‘s struggle for the open-access of accessibility norms and regulations (Catalonia); European Blind Union actions to regulate silent electric cars (EU); Association des Paralysées de France actions to assess and to enforce the full implementation of urban accessibility regulations in the country (France).

Key publications

Sánchez Criado, T. & Cereceda, M. (2016). Urban accessibility issues: Technoscientific democratizations at the documentation interface. CITY, 20(4), 611–628.

Sánchez Criado, T. & Estalella, A. (Eds.) (forthcoming, 2017). Experimental collaborations: Ethnography through fieldwork devices (EASA book series) London: Berghahn. URL of the project:

Sánchez Criado, T., Rodríguez Giralt, I. & Mencaroni, A. (2015). Care in the (critical) making: Open prototyping, or the radicalisation of independent-living politics. ALTER. European Journal of Disability Research, doi:

Sánchez Criado, T. (2015). ¿Una vida fuera de catálogo? La transformación colaborativa del mercado de ayudastécnicas. EXPDEM project blog. URL:

Tironi, M. & Sánchez Criado, T. (2015). Of Sensors and Sensitivities. Towards a Cosmopolitics of ‘Smart Cities’? Tecnoscienza, 6(1) pp. 89-108.