Sustainability & Accessibility: Perfect Partners, Not Conflicting Aims

It's time to build buildings that are disability-friendly

Sustainability, Environment, Economy, Social Inclusion, Buildings, Design, Disability, American Disability Act, Accessibility, Sustainable Buildings, Sustainable Design, The SustainabilityX® Magazine


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American buildings, both public and private, have a problem with accessibility. As The New York Times highlights, buildings that have been described as ‘uplifting’ have failed to conform to the standards set out in the transformational Americans with Disabilities Act, in the process alienating and demotivating people living with a disability. As America embarks on a long-term agenda to renovate its building stocks, this time with a focus on sustainability, the perfect opportunity has been created to also make them disability-friendly. As it happens, sustainability and accessibility go hand in hand.

Scaling down

One focus of sustainable buildings is putting responsibility back onto tenants. As the NRDC highlights, this takes the form of personal waste disposal systems, encouraging people to be thoughtful about waste, and centrally controlled heating and airflow systems that react to exact internal changes in temperature. This can be very powerful for the independence of people living with a disability. Take, for instance, the challenges that those diagnosed with cerebral palsy face. As advocates network CPFN highlights, cerebral palsy often impairs fine motor function and overall strength. For people with physical symptoms of cerebral palsy, it can be enormously helpful to have tailor-made systems for their everyday life - like small-scale waste management, rather than the classic method of hauling large waste bags, and from apartments that monitor and mediate indoor climate control. Giving fine control provides independence, and that means access to modern housing.




Increased flexibility

Much sustainable building is characterized by the use of reusable materials, easily moved prefabricated structures and wood. This can come together to aid accessibility. A common challenge faced by wheelchair users isn’t necessarily a lack of ramps and rails - though this is common enough - doorways being too slim to fit a wheelchair, and lumps and bumps within a property making it difficult to safely move. The sustainable building movement and everything it entails will make a lot of progress in this regard and make modern houses easier to navigate.

Creating standards

The US Green Building Council has been instrumental in developing policies that focus on sustainable building, and they have also given a lot of thought to what can be done for accessibility. This effort has been replicated federally, and state and national statutes look to create accessibility in new developments as a matter of course. It is a matter of fortune that many of the companies indelibly involved with sustainable development and construction are keenly aware of accessibility issues. This means that, in turn, new buildings and renovations of existing developments will be environmentally friendly in addition to welcoming people living with disabilities.

This shows just how the aims of sustainability and accessibility dovetail. Sustainability is about creating a fair and open future, in which buildings contribute to positive environmental outcomes. That includes the lives of people living with disability, making accessibility a key aim. A solid future for buildings will be a fair one for everyone.


As our founder, Supriya Verma, always says, sustainability is all about teamwork. Show your support for independent, high-impact publications. Consider donating to The SustainabilityX® Magazine to help us continue our vital work bringing the environment and economy together for a sustainable future through dialogue. Or consider becoming a member for less than US$2 a month and help power international conversations that matter. Cheers to a sustainable world!