Compliance, heritage and accessibility: A case study

A busy street in Sri Lanka with a tuk tuk and pedestrians. Compliance, heritage and accessibility. War damages buildings and transport systems. It causes them to fall into disrepair and become inaccessible. Sri Lanka is one such example. But what to do? Sri Lanka is committed to disability access in their re-building process. However, they have a complex web of building compliance, heritage and accessibility to navigate. A universal design training program for built environment practitioners is a good start. 

Penny Galbraith summarises the training process and the historical context in an article. She explains how the technical training was devised and delivered. Workshop scenarios were key to the success of the project. 

More than 80 delegates attended the three day training. They comprised technical staff responsible for compliance with regulations, architects, engineers, town planners, transport operators and civil society organisations. The aim was for participants to understand the concept of universal design as a means of problem-solving the issues. This is because a strict compliance approach was not going to ensure accessibility. Consequently, the emphasis of the training was on design not regulation. 

War also increases the level of disability in the population. Many injured people are excluded from work and education. Superstition about disability as a form of punishment for wrongdoing in a previous life exacerbates the discrimination and stigma. While an accessible built environment can’t change attitudes, it can minimise barriers to work, a social life, and education. 

The intent of Sri Lanka’s accessibility regulations is commendable. However, in practical terms, the regulations and regulatory process make this difficult to achieve and compliance levels are low. Universal design thinking encourages creative problem-solving which involves users in the design process. 

Playing catch-up with investment also allows an opportunity to avoid mistakes and to learn from the journey travelled by other countries towards removing barriers in the built environment. 

The title of the article is, A universal design approach to addressing the inaccessibility and disrepair of the built environment in Sri Lanka. It is downloadable from the Design for All India Newsletter, October 2021 (article 3). Note that this publication uses a large bold font which is not easy on the eye. 


The combination of accessibility regulations, a rich architectural and cultural history, and recent civil war poses considerable challenges for remedying a damaged and run-down built environment. Sri Lanka has a commitment to removing barriers in the built environment for people with disability and as such has a set of robust regulations that are prescriptive and retrospective. However, drafting and translation errors have made it difficult to achieve these objectives. Consequently, there is a poor level of understanding and compliance with regulations leading to a seemingly intractable combination of difficulties.

A project funded through the aid program of the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs sought to overcome these difficulties through a training program. It was decided that a robust understanding of universal design principles would provide participants with different ways of thinking about the problems and solutions. Lessons from Australia were shared including whole-of-journey transport planning. Community and industry engagement was a central theme to taking more strategic and universal design approach to solving complex problems.

Penny Galbraith is a director of CUDA.


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