Better access to public buildings and services is important to ensure equal opportunities for all groups in society.

Better access to public buildings and services is important to ensure equal opportunities for all groups using public services, and those with special needs who have mobility, vision or hearing impairments are most affected, but not only that: today, spatial planning focuses on the average adult and forgets children, the elderly and mothers of young children.

Concepts such as "universal access," "inclusive design" or "universal design" are increasingly reaching our language. In recent years, this has been a paradigm shift in attitudes to the needs of people with disabilities, but also to our wider living environment. Architects and engineers are increasingly orienting their work towards the design of a public space that meets the needs of the widest possible user group. It is understood that the barrier-free ramp and low-threshold access are also convenient for a mother with a stroller or a tourist with a suitcase. Not only people with special needs, but all users of the building benefit from the all-inclusive design.

On 21 March 2012, the Riigikogu adopted a law ratifying the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. The UN General Assembly adopted the Convention on 13 December 2006 in New York and the Republic of Estonia signed it for the first time on 25 September 2007. The purpose of the Convention is to promote, protect and ensure the fundamental freedoms of all persons with disabilities and to promote respect for their innate dignity. According to the Convention, the concept of people with disabilities includes people with long-term physical, mental, intellectual or sensory impairments who, in combination with various obstacles, may prevent them from fully and effectively participating in society, as do others. Access to buildings, including the obligation of a Contracting State to set and monitor minimum standards, is regulated in Article 9 of the Convention.

Until 01.07.2015, the area of accessibility was regulated by the Regulation No. 14 of the Minister of Economy and Communications of 28 November 2002 "Requirements to ensure the mobility of persons with walking, visual and hearing impairments in public buildings" in the following Regulation No. 14.

On 1 July 2015, the new Building Code entered into force, annulling all implementing laws adopted on the basis of the old Building Code. However, all buildings for which a building permit was issued between 1 January 2003 and 1 July 2015 must comply with the then applicable Regulation No. 14, which is why the Authority for Consumer Protection and Technical Inspection observes these guidelines when inspecting older buildings.

In the case of new buildings, the area is governed by Regulation No. 28 "Requirements for buildings with special needs of disabled people," adopted by the Minister of Enterprise and Technology on 29.05.2018 and entered into force on 03.06.2018. Regulation No. 28 was introduced on the basis of § 11 4 of the Construction Code and applies to all new buildings for which a public service is provided and which have received a building permit after 03.06.2018.

§ 7 of the Construction Code also states that a building must be designed, constructed and maintained in accordance with good practice. Contractors and other companies must also adhere to good practice in other activities regulated by the Construction Code. Thus, the Construction Code obliges to take into account the special needs of disabled people in construction activities, even if there is no corresponding regulation.

Therefore, when assessing the accessibility of buildings, the first thing to do is to determine the period in which the building permit was granted. Repeal of the law does not release the owner of a building from liability if the design and construction requirements have not been met or if the local government has not exercised sufficient control over compliance with these requirements when issuing the building permit.

Requirements for accessibility of buildings

More detailed requirements for accessibility of buildings are set out in Chapter 3 of Regulation No. 28, which describes the general requirements for the building (§ 17), requirements for internal transport route (§ 18), doors (§ 19) and door openings (§ 20), equipment and equipment for the public space of the building (§ 21), rooms for the disabled in residential buildings (§ 22), lighting of public spaces (§ 23), toilets for people with special needs (§ 24) and washrooms (§ 25).

Furthermore, it is necessary to monitor the general accessibility requirements applicable to all buildings, including the requirements for lifts (§ 13), ramps (§ 14), stairs (§ 15) and railings (§ 16). For this reason, the Consumer Protection and Technical Regulatory Authority verifies compliance with about 120 requirements in a public service building. An approximately similar classification of requirements can be found in Regulation No 14. Since the list and description of requirements in the two laws differ slightly, the regulation in force at the time of issuing the building permit must form the basis.

What are the prospects for the field?

In recent decades, society's attitude towards accessibility as a whole has changed. Today, not only do we speak of the need to ensure accessibility for people with disabilities, but we are increasingly adhering to the principle that buildings must be accessible and comfortable for absolutely all members of society. Children, the elderly and people with disabilities make up a significant proportion of our population, with about 62% of those over 65 years of age whose daily activities are somewhat restricted. However, the design of the living environment has long been based only on the "average" person, who is healthy, can move easily through obstacles in public spaces and does not need any help.

Our population is aging due to the improved quality of life and low birth rate in Estonia and around the world. Increasing life expectancy requires adapting the daily living environment and facilitating access to services. If we do not create a more accessible public space today, we must be prepared to pay higher fees in the future in the form of social benefits and unpaid taxes on services that are not available to everyone.

The ability of people to cope with everyday tasks can change very quickly over time. Due to a minor trauma, each of us may have to move around with crutches or a wheelchair, even if it is only temporary. In addition to the wheelchair, you may have to bring a pram, suitcase, shopping cart or a light wheelchair into the building. Both children and the elderly can find support in railings. Therefore, the design of public space is increasingly based on the principle of inclusive design. We all want the environment around us to have as few obstacles as possible.

On 26 September 2019, the Government of the Republic of Estonia decided to set up a Working Group on Accessibility, whose task is to submit its proposals to the Government by the summer of 2021, with the greater goal of creating an accessible Estonia by 2035. Representatives of a large number of state institutions, including the Consumer Protection and Technical Regulatory Authority, non-profit associations, institutions and organizations responsible for the design of public space, take part in the work of the Working Group. The general direction is based on the prevailing global trends that public space belongs to everyone and that all members of society have the right to feel comfortable everywhere.

Last updated: 10.04.2021