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The good, the ideal, and the accessible home: Perceptions of accessibility norms in domestic environments

Vivre dans un logement accessible: comment les habitants perçoivent les normes d’accessibilité 
Emeline Brulé
p. 57-72


Les militants et chercheurs dans le domaine du handicap attribuent généralement le manque de logements accessibles au manque de compréhension des normes d’accessibilité par les architectes, ou à un niveau insuffisant de soutien du public dû au validisme ou à des inquiétudes peu justifiées concernant les coûts de construction. Nous en savons cependant peu sur les expériences vécues en matière de logement accessible, qui pourraient fournir des explications complémentaires au faible soutien public. Cette étude vise à comprendre leurs expériences et leurs perceptions des normes d’accessibilité à domicile, au travers de quinze entretiens avec des propriétaires et locataires de logements accessibles récemment construits dans des zones urbaines françaises, s’identifiant comme valides. Je décris comment les normes d’accessibilité entrent en conflit avec: les routines quotidiennes, parfois au point de limiter les activités; et les points de vue sur ce qui constitue une bonne maison, esthétiquement et fonctionnellement. Les expériences des participants varient, mais dans l’ensemble, les entretiens suggèrent qu’il est en effet difficile pour les habitants de s’adapter aux normes d’accessibilité, telles qu’elles sont actuellement appliquées. Comprendre les perceptions des habitants en matière de logement accessible pourrait ouvrir de nouvelles voies pour améliorer la mise en œuvre des normes d’accessibilité dans les logements.

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Notes de l’auteur

This article draws from an independent research project that did not receive any specific funding.

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1Studies of disability and the built environment are often the realm of architects’ professional documentation and architecture scholars. Since the 1950s, they have helmed the definition of accessibility standards and norms, starting with the American A117.1 Barrier Free Standard in 1961 (Williamson, 2019). Disability organizations were a driving force for this research, contributing their own case studies, participating in design processes or pushing for the funding of these initiatives. As Williamson notes, these organizations focused primarily on physical access and circulation in space for people with physical disabilities, especially wheelchair users. International accessibility norms reflect this priority (Guffey, 2017).

  • 1 Such as the pioneering 1990 American with Disabilities Act (ADA) in the United States, or the Law o (...)

2Disability rights laws aiming to guarantee equal access and rights to disabled people1 use these norms for policy implementation. Physical access provides a sense of citizenship and dignity (Driedger, Crooks & Bennett, 2004; Gaete-Reyes, 2015; Revillard, 2018), as it has a direct impact on the degree of limitations on activity and participation, especially for wheelchair users. Yet, these norms are far from being universally applied to all new constructions, let alone buildings undergoing renovation (Escudié, 2016).

3What may explain the limited adoption of accessibility standards, 60 years after the first standards publication? A first hypothesis is the lack of expertise of architects and designers (Heylighen, 2008) which may result in accessibility norms not being implemented or resulted in poor usability due to flawed implementation (Winkler et al., 2021). Previous research has thus focused on including disabled people as experts in architectural design (for instance, Heylighen, Van Doren & Vermeersch, 2013; Nijs & Heylighen, 2015), as co-designer or testers. We however know little about how accessibility norms are perceived by the rest of the public. They are often associated with other values of inclusion and good living: curb cuts are a chief example cited in support of the benefits of accessible design for all (Guffey, 2017), making cities friendly to users of all ages. But their impact is likely more complex: Williamson (2019) for instance notes that the car-friendly development of California in the mid-twentieth century had a positive impact on accessibility, but arguably excluded other parts of the population and are not environmentally resilient. A second hypothesis is that organizations or individuals contest the application of accessibility norms, for instance on the basis of costs. Disability laws include the principle of reasonable adjustment also called reasonable accommodation: adaptations necessary to guarantee access should have reasonable costs. What is reasonable is subject to interpretation and negotiations. For instance, requests for funds to make one’s home accessible in France are evaluated by public servants; if they perceive costs do not generate enough benefits, these requests can be denied (Revillard, 2018).

  • 2 The Article R111-19-10 of the Construction and Housing Code lists among motivations for granting ex (...)
  • 3 Law of the 23rd of November 2018 on the evolution of Housing, Land Management and Digital Technolog (...)

4Accessible housing laws reflect this tension. For instance, the French Law on equal rights and opportunities for disabled people (2005) mandates that public facilities and new or redeveloped collective housing comply with accessibility norms. While to our knowledge there are no studies of the negotiations behind this law, the principle of reasonable adjustment applies:2 a lift on a small apartment building would be difficult for inhabitants to maintain and pay for, hence smaller buildings are exempted. The impact of building norms on costs was also a core argument of the French 2017 program “to build more, better and cheaper” (, 2017). The resulting ELAN law3 moves away from accessibility as a general principle and instead focuses on housing that can be adapted for disabled inhabitants when needed.

  • 4 These norms primarily focus on physical access, such as providing sufficient space for wheelchair m (...)
  • 5 Visitability and adaptability: communal rooms and the toilet need to be accessible with a wheelchai (...)
  • 6 Habitability: new housing units must comply with all accessibility requirements described in footno (...)

5The ELAN law modified accessibility requirements4 by differentiating two levels of accessibility, visitability5 and habitability.6 The law was vigorously opposed by disability activists arguing that costs should not be considered as accessibility is a human right (Knaebel, 2018) and that lack of support for accessibility is due to ableism, the structural discrimination or prejudice against disabled people (Campbell, 2009). The overall impact of the law on housing accessibility or construction costs is however unclear: accessibility norms now apply to all housing buildings with three or more stories above ground floor, instead of buildings with four or more. This could mean that more housing units are visitable for wheelchair users as more buildings would be fitted with a lift, but that fewer would be available for renting or buying without modifications. Furthermore, if housing units are adaptable, they require the same floor space, which is a significant driver of costs. Government communication suggests that the two hypotheses regarding the lack of support for accessible housing are linked, stating that changes to accessibility norms are necessary because they negatively impact the quality of life of other inhabitants: “This means smaller living areas for everyone (since the kitchen and bathroom need to be bigger)” (, 2017).

6While this issue is sometimes raised in general public and architecture reports (for instance, Eleb & Simon, 2013; Chauvot, 2019; Winkler et al., 2021), there is little scholarly attention for able-bodied inhabitants’ perceptions of how accessibility norms impact their home and their everyday life, and how these perceptions might vary with age, class and gender which shape tastes and expectations for the home (Wilson, 2004). Studying inhabitants’ perceptions of accessibility norms could both shed light on existing hypotheses, by clarifying how flaws in the implementation of accessibility norms affect able-bodied inhabitants and what they consider reasonable adjustments between others ideals for the home and accessibility; and uncover other explanations of the apparent lack of public support for accessible housing.



7I began this research after observing that friends becoming owners of new, accessibility compliant, housing were making significant changes to their interiors going against accessibility norms. This was sometimes deliberate and called for exploration. In line with research on inhabiting practices and studies of values, I opted for an interpretive and qualitative method, the walking interview (Pink, 2004). This method enables to observe actual domestic practices (with the interviewees making coffee, going around, making dinner, etc.). Walking through the house entices participants to reflect on their environment and point to what they think would be of interest to the researcher, which they might not discuss in a formal interview; and it provides the interviewer with the opportunity to ask questions about architectural features. This approach is also in line with historical design inquiry into experiences of the home (see Chapter 6 of Göransdotter, 2020).

Data collection

8The interviews were semi-structured and included two sets of preliminary questions. The first was about the household composition, when participants moved to their current home, how and when the home was built and a description of their previous home. A second set focused on gauging participants’ knowledge of architecture and design: I asked if they used websites or social media accounts focusing on interior design or architecture, if they had or read decoration magazines and how and where they purchased furniture. These questions enabled me to identify the resources that participants draw on to interpret their surroundings and similarities in aesthetic preferences. Furthermore, it was a way to feed the discussion as participants reflected on their knowledge of these topics.

9I then asked participants to walk me through what they liked and disliked about their homes. This question, coming after a discussion of design and architecture references and of participants’ previous home, was designed to encourage comparative discourses. It is very likely that this is the first time participants live in a home following accessibility requirements, given accessibility laws in France are fairly recent. In most cases (11), when asked what they liked or disliked, participants initiated a visit to all rooms (the order varied), with a brief stay in each. In the other cases (4), participants discussed their home in its entirety while seated in the living room, before taking me on a tour. I intervened minimally, reformulating answers if the discussion needed to be stimulated or asking for precision about an element that had not been discussed. For instance, after the question “What about the kitchen sink?” a participant answered: “See, there, the sink in the kitchen, it’s really a disaster… ah but I didn’t show you the basin in the bathroom, I should show that to you too.” All participants agreed to be audio-recorded. Interviews lasted 90 minutes on average. I transcribed all interviews, which I complemented with drawings of design features and observation notes. Once I selected quotes for this article, I translated them from French to English.


  • 7 Insee is the French organization producing demographic and economic statistics. While I could have (...)
  • 8 The French Constitutional Council, in its Decision n° 2007-557 DC, taken on the 15th of November 20 (...)

10Reflecting my interest in comparing experiences of accessible housing in different socio-demographic groups, the 15 interviewees represent a range of socio-demographic characteristics and housing types to understand both variability and similarity in perceptions of accessibility norms. I limited the number of participants to 15 as the interview data was rich and more extensive than I had planned, and widening participation would require a clearer picture of perceptions of accessibility norms and potential follow-up questions. Participants were recruited opportunistically: I mentioned repeatedly over the course of several months that I was interested in conducting interviews with inhabitants of newly built or recently rehabilitated units for a project examining perceptions of recent architecture, and was introduced to potential participants I didn’t previously know; I further spent several days drawing a recently completed building and established rapport with inhabitants who stopped to observe (often children or older inhabitants), which subsequently enabled me to recruit families. I recruited both renters and owners of new or redeveloped housing units, all supposed to comply with accessibility norms. This inquiry was conducted in 2016, in three cities (Paris, Ivry-sur-Seine and Toulouse). These dense urban areas offer a broad range of housing types including large public housing projects, had undergone recent redevelopment including housing, and had more constraints on space highlighting the tradeoffs inhabitants and architects may have to make with regards to accessible housing. It may hide geographical differences in architectural approaches but a convergence between international and local norms and efforts to limit costs has largely homogenized the design of new multi-story housing buildings (Wagner, 2019). Interviewees varied in terms of age (23-81 years-old), gender (8 women, 7 men) and social class (defined here by the occupation of the interviewee, using Insee’s social categories:7 three were under-privileged, five middle class, three privileged, four highly privileged), and were part of households between 1 and 6 people. None of the participants identified as disabled, two participants disclosed medical conditions affecting their daily life and three participants mentioned they had close friends or family members they described as disabled. None of the participants discussed their racial self-identification spontaneously, some did share they were not born in France, but I did not collect this data, given the difficulties surrounding its collection and processing in France.8

Table 1. Participants socio-demographic characteristics

Table 1. Participants socio-demographic characteristics

Researcher’s positionality

11As described above, I used my design training, specifically my sketching skills, as a means of recruitment, but it also affected how I developed the research, the interviews and analysis. Designers and similar professionals and amateurs develop a skilled vision, an ability to identify usability issues or design opportunities that might otherwise go unnoticed. But it also affords a status and suggests an expertise participants can draw on, for instance by seeking my opinions on planned changes, room arrangement, color or furniture, or by asking me questions about the design industry. In terms of analysis, sketching aided in making sense of the issues encountered by participants. However, it may entice participants to try expressing good taste they think a designer expects or emphasize design features they do not otherwise care about. The walking interview is a way to mitigate this, as it anchors responses in domestic practices; but making assumptions about what I would consider to be good taste is inevitable. Fortunately however, perceptions of designers’ tastes and work varied with the design content consumed (for instance the popular show D&co or professional design magazines), allowing me to reorient towards what participants liked instead.


12At the time of the interviews, my university did not require an ethical review. Consent was explicitly asked verbally, and I explained to participants the risks related to participating in this study. Namely, I stated that my presence might make them feel uncomfortable, in which case they could ask me to leave immediately, and that I would also leave if I perceived such discomfort. I also explained that despite anonymization, they might be recognized by the people who helped me recruit participants.

Data analysis

13I followed Braun et al.’s (2019) reflexive approach to thematic analysis, which I concluded about eight months after the interviews. The goal of qualitative analysis here was to develop a coherent narrative on how accessibility norms are interpreted in home environments and how this may prevent support for accessible housing. My approach is descriptive, largely semantic and critical realist: I take the walking interviews as accurately representing participants’ experiences and the materiality of their homes, although I strived to identify latent sources of meaning participants relied upon, including in the procedure itself. I began the coding by focusing on explicit mentions of accessibility norms and the experiences and spaces they were associated with. I then focused on coding the negative and positive aspects of the interior architectures pointed out by participants and their comparison to previous homes, and references to ideal aesthetics or uses such as more general discussions of architecture. I regularly compared experiences of rooms of features (for instance, sinks) and how they differed in participants’ accounts. The reflexive thematic analysis aimed at the iterative development of themes around the shared meanings associated with accessibility norms in housing. The process of coding interviews allowed me to identify when, how, in relation to what (activity, individual preferences, etc.) participants came to perceive accessibility norms and how they affected their perceptions of their home more generally.


  • 9 I refer here to participants highlighting or discussing material features that were direct conseque (...)

14Changes due to accessibility norms were raised by participants in almost every interview in explicit and implicit ways.9 I suggest accessibility norms are largely experienced through novel frictions and pains and through changes experienced in housing design priorities and style. While accessibility norms were envisioned as a means to improve inclusion in a diverse society, examining (1) how inhabitants reorganize spaces that are given more prominence (the aforementioned bathrooms and bedrooms) as a result of accessibility norms show the struggles in materializing and gathering support for this ideal. These types of encounters with accessibility norms appear heavily mediated: (2) by class through enabling choices in housing and through adapting everyday tasks or the design of the home to lessen their impact; and (3) by awareness of physical disability either as a personal risk or affecting social relationships which shapes accessibility norms’ perceived usefulness. However, adaptations to activities are often prevented by flawed implementations of accessibility norms, which not only make homes difficult to use by wheelchair users but also exclude other groups.

Accessibility norms are encountered through new frictions and pain

15Accessibility norms are complex enough that architects have difficulty implementing them (Heylighen, 2008). Hence a first question to elucidate is how inhabitants encounter accessibility norms and how inhabitants come to associate a certain design feature as the result of an accessibility requirement. The kitchen, which has long been a focus of usability or accessibility design research (Williamson, 2019), appears as a site in which changes were strongly felt by most interviewees, as exemplified by the excerpts below:

Yeah, so, the kitchen sink, I really don’t understand why they decided to do that, you see the sink it’s for wheelchairs, because you can put your legs under it. [Mimics washing the dishes] But see if I try to wash the dishes standing up, see how I need to bend over the sink? Three spoons and my back hurt. So I thought, okay, fine, I’ll just do the dishes seated, like M., it’s designed for being seated, and maybe it’s even better for the body. [Fetches a chair, and seats in front of the sink] And, well, you see, I can’t do the dishes seated, the basin is too high, my arms are tense, it hurts too… So I wonder, when you’re disabled, do you have to pay for a dishwasher? Sometimes, I wonder what goes in the mind of the guys who invent these things [points at the accessible sink], it has to be men who design that, they don’t do the dishes, they don’t care [laugh]. (P1, woman, middle-class, 33-years-old)

16Confronted with a novel kitchen design, this participant is able to make a connection to accessibility requirements due to knowing a wheelchair user and goes on demonstrating how the sink could theoretically be used sitting down. The sink is at an appropriate and accessibility-compliant height, and there is no cupboard under it. However, she is not able to use it without pain, whether she is standing up because the sink is too low or sitting down because the depth of the basin is too deep and prevents sitting comfortably. While this may be an oversight, it may also be the result of a kitchen designer applying accessibility norms regarding the height of countertops but overlooking use, or that these choices were made by independent contractors. This type of mismatch was common in the interviews:

- The sink is stupid, I’m so against those things for the handicapped, it wasn’t like that in my flat from before. So you see the sink I can’t change it, this flat it’s not mine, and I didn’t choose it, that’s social housing, you say yes or you lose your place [on the waiting list]. [The sink] is too low, and there are all the cabinets over it, so, if I left the cabinets open, well sometimes it hits me in the face. And the sink is not deep enough! And the tap, well, see, it’s still too low, I can’t [take the kettle, as if she was about to put water in it] fill the kettle there, I have to fill it in the bathtub.

- Oh yeah, and you can’t sit at the sink either.

- Well, no, there’s the cupboard, and the garbage cans in it… But you see, I don’t understand why they impose that on all of us when well, do you see a lot of wheelchairs here? I mean, with this place, maybe I’ll end up disabled because it’s killing my back. […] you see, I’ve lived in Paris all my life, and I’ve worked in Paris all my life, and I can’t live in Paris, and it’s not normal… I was lucky to get a HLM [a flat in public housing] here, but I see it’s not for people like me. (P2, woman, under-privileged, 62-years-old)

17In this case, the sink is at an appropriate height and has an appropriate depth; but a cupboard is placed under it, preventing sitting. We again have a mismatch between accessibility requirements that were implemented (the appropriate sink height) and the impact this should have on the rest of the kitchen (removal of the sink cupboard; adapted tap design; not using wall cabinets). This excerpt shows how a strong opposition to accessibility norms can develop. P2 identifies them as the source of painful changes, disrupting routine daily activities. She expresses the very direct impact of poor design (“with this place, maybe I’ll end up disabled”) but then makes a connection with broader housing and economic constraints (“I can’t live in Paris, and it’s not normal…”), preventing her from making changes or moving, and as a result to feel at home (“I see it’s not for people like me). Another participant describing the pain caused by kitchen countertops following accessibility guidelines, does not blame accessibility norms:

To get back to the height we’re used to… we just redid the kitchen because it was unbearable, we raised everything up, because I have knee problems, and so when I was cooking, I had to sit down all the time to use the countertop, but well the kids do things during that time, and so I have to get up, sit down, get up, sit down… After two weeks I could not cook at all anymore, and after a while my companion got tired of doing it all the time, so… We raised the height of all the kitchen equipment. It wasn’t too complicated. (P3, woman, highly-privileged, 42-years-old)

18Moving to a new house, P3 and her family found that countertops are lower than in their previous home, which creates a significant issue in their daily life. However, having the ability to personalize her kitchen, this is merely treated as a poor design choice with no particular associated meaning. If accessibility requirements are encountered through their impact on daily tasks, other factors are necessary for preventing, like in P2’s case, to feel at home.

Accessibility norms affect the control over one’s home

19While participants encountered accessibility norms through changes affecting daily tasks, sometimes because of disabling effects, this is not sufficient to understand how some inhabitants come to feel so strongly that new housing is not for them as P2 expresses. That the kitchen appears an especially contentious space in most interviews points towards gendered patterns of experience, given women still shoulder more than their share of housework. But interviewees’ perceptions of what good interior design is also comes into play, which relates to ideals of modernity and how a house becomes a home, a place of one’s own:

I like these new apartments, very flat, very simple, without dark corridors, the sleek sliding door. It’s very modern, you see? I mean, yes, you are a designer, you understand that. I like modern architecture, well I would never have the means to have a modern house of my own, but I don’t know, I find it more zen… I visited ancient flats, but I would have had to redo everything. Closed kitchens are so stupid in Paris, they’re like mice cages, these [kitchen that are] corridors or closets, where you can’t sit down… People say that new apartments all look alike, but well, if we look at houses built in the 20s, they’re all the same too, they all have the same squeaky staircase, [the modern flats are] okay, they show our touch. So here it is, I like it here because it’s all flat, there’s space in the bedroom and it’s easy to clean. (P4, man, privileged, 29-years-old)

  • 10 This is likely an accessibility feature: The sliding door was inserted in the wall, which is more c (...)

20While accessibility requirements are not discussed explicitly, the features highlighted by the interviewee (no stairs, sliding doors,10 larger bedroom, open kitchen, etc.) are consequences of their application in a flat with limited floor space. Accessibility becomes a symbol of modernity, a white background in which to showcase one’s “touch” through decoration and furniture. This discourse is also in line with certain minimalist modernist views of the home, which emerged from new economic constraints on the middle and upper-middle class in the mid-twentieth century and hygienist concerns (Wilson, 2004).

21But ideals of modernity might differ:

So I don’t really understand this obsession with the flat and the square, well, except for the accessibility, but I have to swallow accessibility stuff all day everyday at work, and so here I will redesign everything… If you are interested in architecture, maybe you know Arakawa and Madeline Gins? It’s fantastic, everything is very playful, but it’s clear that there’s not the legal one-meter-fifty-centimeters to turn, and there are steps, and besides even the floors aren’t wheelchair compatible. But living there must really be a great experience, even if I’m not as radical, and then it bothers me that we have to give up this kind of possibility because maybe one day we’ll be in a wheelchair… […] there are great examples of ramps and accessible buildings, but not for interior design. It always looks old to me. But so here it’s like I have a big cube, okay, a parallelepiped, and I can do what I want with it, and now that I’ve bought it, I want to make it unique again, not look like all that stuff we do at work, and then I’ll change it when I’m old. (P5, man, highly privileged, 41-years-old)

22P5 is an interior designer who knows accessibility standards well, applies them in his work, yet objects to them in his home. He refers to an understanding of modern design that is personal and non-standardized, opposing playfulness and character to accessibility. He also associates this with a positive change of status, from tenant to owner, allowing a wider range of choices. This is in line with P3 but contrasts with P2, who as a public housing tenant has virtually no control over her home and concludes it is not made for her. Implicitly, they adhere to the construct that a home reflects who they are and push against seeing themselves as disabled. The felt loss of control over their home reflects not just the loss of usability as discussed in section 3.1, but also the loss of status they associate with disability and old age. This is illuminated by the discourses of older participants:

We were very involved in the design process because we want to age here, we want someone to be able to sleep here if we need them… But we didn’t want one of those old people’s apartments that look like hospitals. My mother’s buffet had to be shortened because the ceiling is not high enough, in these new houses… We thought a lot about the bathroom for example, so that it looks nice too… And everything can be changed easily… When you turn 80, you will see that you will no longer want workers fixing your home. […] I really like the beautiful staircases and the corners, but we’re too old for that, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’ use beautiful materials… It’s a bit of a compromise, it’s too much of a cube, but it’s a pretty beautiful cube. (P6, woman, highly privileged, 81 years-old)

23P6 describes aging and moving to an accessible home as a series of compromises. She lists the same advantages as other participants, such as easier maintenance and increased focus on ease of circulation, in contrast with earlier interior design styles associated with the good home, which her large hand carved buffet and dining room set exemplify. She however manages to ensure continuity, by altering family heirlooms or choosing materials more difficult to maintain but of perceived higher quality such as wood countertops, pushing against what she perceives as designs for “hospitals.” She also implemented accessibility norms selectively; for instance, her kitchen included adjustable-height countertops, but the appliances and sink were not wheelchair-accessible as it was envisioned for an in-home aide and she found it more practical and safer to stand in the meantime, for she had to be more careful about her balance when sitting and standing.

24Taken together, these excerpts show how meanings associated with accessibility norms may vary with age and socio-professional status. First, they shape how inhabitants construct the good home in terms of style, originality and usability and trade-offs between the three. Stylistic preferences are constructed in relation with traditions, but also with design marketed at the time people develop their ideals of a good home and form lifelong habits, especially in early adulthood when they settle (Wilson, 2004). Age and financial means hence shape patterns of preferences, even if they are mediated by personal tastes. What counts as originality (decoration and furniture for P4, but the overall design of space and volume in P5’s account) similarly depends on the social background, both to envision and having the means to alter a home plan. Meanwhile the concerns about accessibility expressed by P5 and P6 reflect how they envision the distant or near possibility of becoming disabled, and their ability to plan the future with a concern for living well with age-related disabilities. This appears to be a shared concern among more privileged participants in this study, and the ability to plan for preserving one’s quality of life over one’s lifetime is not afforded to all. Moreover, models and concerns about aging are likely to vary given the differences in life expectancy and rate of disabilities across socio-professional categories.

Accessibility norms call for new ways of inhabiting

25I have highlighted so far how accessibility norms are perceived against ideals for a usable, aesthetically pleasant and personal home, requiring trade-offs or generating refusals from able-bodied inhabitants. But accessibility norms are only one set of norms shaping recent housing. When P6 points to lower ceilings in her new flat, she is likely seeing the impact of environmental norms of design: lower ceilings reduce the volume to heat. Studies of innovative eco-friendly housing (for instance Renauld, 2012) show them as sites of renegotiating habits and hygienist domestic ideals, from materials that cannot be cleaned with traditional detergents to cohabiting with spiders nesting in green façades. In this third section, I focus in more detail on how participants expressed what constitutes a good use of space in the home. Do participants agree with the argument brought forward for changing accessibility requirements, that they negatively affect quality of life by reducing the size of living areas (, 2017)? Can accessible design help inhabitants envision new ways of organizing space in the home and beyond, and by extension, inclusive relationships?

26Building homes around a multi-use open space area combining dining and living rooms with the kitchen is well-established and reflects the steps taken to limit the size and costs of housing while meeting middle-class lifestyle expectations (Clarisse, 2004; Wilson, 2004). Hence it is unsurprising that open kitchens, which meet accessibility norms while limiting the amount of dedicated floor space, does not appear much of a concern for participants. In fact, it may be an improvement compared to previous, cramped as mentioned by P4, kitchen spaces that were often retroactively added to older flats (Clarisse, 2004). The size of bedrooms is a lot more constructed as a concern by participants: while some, like P4, appreciate the extra personal space, others see it as space with low usefulness, especially for children’s rooms which are sometimes used for extra-storage. But the most contentious use of space for accessibility is the space used for accessible toilets, described as “dead,” “wasted,” “weird” or “lost” space, a “nuisance,” in which you could “almost put a bed” (P9) or without which “there could be an extra room” (P12), even if inhabitants do not perceive the remaining of their home to be too small.

27Participants expressed the need to reclaim that space. P7 (man, under-privileged, 23-years-old) lives in a shared flat and built a cardboard castle in their accessible toilet room around what they call the throne. While this is a common metaphor for referring to a toilet, its derisive aspect also points to perceptions that this is unwanted and possibly, a luxury they can hardly afford. He and his flat mates sometimes make a point of playing video games from that room, as an extension of the living room, materializing quite literally how it could extend shared living spaces. Across all accounts, separate accessible toilet rooms are described as underused and virtually impossible to put to good use. Participants investing time to improve the use of this space describe having difficulties coming up with ideas:

My mother has to use a wheelchair sometimes, so accessible toilets were a bit mandatory… But she’s there, what, a few times a month, it’s a shame to waste all this space… At first I wanted to put some storage but it would have had to be taken out when she’s there, it’s not great… So we covered everything with posters to read! […] I have a little less of an impression that it’s useless… When we’ll have the means, we’re just going to rearrange the bathroom and put the toilets inside I think, we’ve looked at the plans, we gain a lot of floor area doing that, I don’t really know why they separate the toilets like that, it’s less practical for wheelchairs, and it wastes so much space… (P8, man, middle class, 54-years-old)

28By contrast, accessible bathrooms including a toilet were not described as a loss of space and were described by several participants as a potential improvement. If they were larger than they would have been before accessibility requirements, it went unnoticed or unexpressed. They were also, however, described as less sanitary by several participants, and a needed sacrifice in small urban housing. This reflects long and much broader design debates over the design of safe and eco-friendly bathrooms (Alter, 2014), although no participants explicitly referred to them. They instead evoked differences between bathrooms shown by Ikea (combined) and in more high-end magazines or shops (separated), exemplifying again how perceptions of accessibility norms need to be understood in relation to status and access to quality housing for all.

29I find it notable that interviewees describing new uses, adaptations or better housing design keeping accessibility in mind, all framed it in a relational perspective. They either had a family member or friend used a wheelchair, which framed their understanding of benefits and intended aims of accessible design such as cooking while sitting. Design alone does not support the development of that awareness. In fact, the envisioned benefits of accessible housing such as flexible, multi-generational and safe uses of the home were not realized for these participants, especially women, who in some cases frame it as sexism (P1: “it has to be men who design that, they don’t do the dishes, they don’t care”). While norms require compromises, some are more acceptable than others. Multi-functional spaces (such as combining the kitchen, living and dining room) seem fairly well accepted aside from usability issues. Changes towards more specialized rooms (separated accessible toilets) appear far more difficult to accept. Whereas the former was justified as a positive material and symbolic change of lifestyle (Wilson, 2004), the latter can hardly be supported the same way.

Discussion and conclusions

30After decades-long efforts for disability rights, accessibility norms became mandatory for multi-family homes above a certain size in 2005 in France, at a time of housing shortages and rapidly increasing prices. A decade later, the ELAN law introduced new exemptions to accessibility requirements, as part of measures to increase housing construction and reduce its costs. To justify this measure, public government communication argued this would improve the quality of life for able-bodied inhabitants (, 2017). A counterargument is that accessibility norms improve usability and safety, with a negligible impact on costs. Meanwhile, scholars and activists identify ableism (Knaebel, 2018) and lack of expertise in architecture (Heylighen, 2008) as barriers to the wide adoption of accessible housing. This study was an effort to look at accessibility norms as they are implemented to better understand able-bodied inhabitants’ perceptions of their impacts in the home and how this could impact public support for accessibility.

31The interviewees articulated their perceptions of accessibility norms implicitly and explicitly through stories about changes in the design and uses of the home. Taken together, they suggest that accessibility norms as implemented often fail to provide the envisioned usability gains. The kitchen is a good example: some inhabitants experienced novel usability issues resulting from the flawed implementation of accessibility norms (for instance P1, P2 in section 3.1; a kitchen sink at the height of a wheelchair user without space underneath for sitting), others had access needs contradicting those of wheelchair users (P3) and some found changes less safe (for instance P6). Inhabitants faced with these difficulties have very different means to address them, structured by class and ownership status: P1 and P2 describe their kitchen as painful but cannot address the situation, when P3 could alter hers and P6 voluntarily did not make her kitchen wheelchair accessible, as she planned to rely on an in-home aide if she became disabled. In some cases, badly implemented norms even contributed to felt social exclusion (for instance P2). In cases interviewees identified increased functionality (for instance P4), this was compared to older buildings retrofitted with little concern for inhabitants.

32Interviewees also articulated accessibility norms as an aesthetic, that of mass-produced modernism, which depending on their age and socio-cultural preferences is imbued with meanings ranging from welcomed minimalism, a gain compared to older housing, to impersonal and clinical (section 3.2). The comparisons made with hospitals or clinical settings inform us about a cultural understanding of disability through a medical lens associating it to failing health and old age. While articulations of accessible design as impersonal, mostly expressed by the most socially, culturally, and financially privileged interviewees, point to the difficulty of reconciling ideals emphasizing historical architectural character with accessibility norms.

33The design of the home reflects social values, and as such scholars often examine them as reflecting how age, gender and class norms are constructed and sustained (Flanders, 2015; Wilson, 2004). In other words, where and how we live reflects social status: buying a first home also often coincides with starting a family, there is college and gendered furniture, mass or exclusive furniture. The making of the accessible home however is rarely a focus outside of technical texts or social sciences research focused on disability (for instance Gardien, 2018); when it is discussed, it is usually through the lens of aging well or aging in place. But interviewees such as P5 suggested also that refusing accessible housing is a way of asserting status, of being young and active, and in contrast that moving into accessible housing means considering it an imminent possibility to control. On the other hand, interviewees’ concerns to preserve both accessibility and livable spaces (like P1 or P8) stem from their impact on their family and friends. Future research on accessible housing could help us better understand how accessible housing materially participates in social stratification and perceptions of disability. While these interviews do not fully elicit whether experiences of accessible housing impact public support for policy in this area, they do suggest that negative lived experiences, compounded with a view of disability as related to aging, do not encourage public support for a housing policy centering accessibility.

34Returning to the context of the research, the argument made in support of the ELAN law that accessibility norms negatively affect able-bodied inhabitants, the design choices observed during the interviews were puzzling. While preserving living spaces is clearly a concern (section 3.3), there are simple design solutions that seem largely ignored. Pre-built kitchens were widely unusable for reasons that should stand-out to any designer. The interviews also suggest that while arguments for accessibility are focused on countering that accessible housing costs more, they are insufficient. The lack of support for accessibility norms is also a push back against difficulties accessing quality housing in urban areas due to price for a suitable space, lack of availability and cost constraints leading to poor interior design. While the ELAN law might improve the housing stock overall, introducing different levels of accessibility is unlikely to improve this situation, when existing accessible housing appears to fail at providing design examples and ideals that improve usability for all. Moreover, if the flats observed in this study are representative of accessible urban housing, some units built since 2005 would have since been refitted, further decreasing the number of accessible units on the market. None of this would be likely to improve support for accessible housing in the general public or access to housing for disabled people.

35What could be done? I have highlighted efforts to improve the quality of accessible spaces by encouraging architects to work with disabled experts (for instance, Heylighen, Van Doren & Vermeerch, 2013; Nijs & Heylighen, 2015), or through community consultation to identify and promote good practices (Winkler et al., 2021); but there seems to be a missed opportunity to involve different family units in expressing what kind of accessible domestic spaces work best for them, including spaces often based on technical parameters such as the bathroom (Alter, 2014). National guidelines (see footnote 3) could focus on examples of accessibility norms implementations, to go beyond their technical application and towards new architectural propositions recognized for their quality, as have emerged in the design of public spaces (see Chapter 7 in Williamson, 2020). It is in fact surprising that regulators evoke uses and experiences of housing as a motivation for revising accessibility norms, but the guidelines they provide do not emphasize it. Finally, there is space for developing inclusive furniture, such as height adjustable sinks, that are currently only available as specialized assistive equipment.

36To conclude, if this inquiry indicates that accessibility norms can deeply affect able-bodied inhabitants’ experiences of domestic environments in urban areas, this was not an attempt to quantify its impact which as shown might vary widely, and should not be considered representative of accessibility in larger environments. Moreover, while I have attempted to outline how demographic characteristics, housing status, and social relations impact the perceptions of accessible housing, I have only started unearthing how they do so. Involving a larger group of participants would be better suited to fully capture this.

37In summary, in this article I have outlined how a diverse group of able-bodied owners and renters of accessible urban housing in France encounter and perceive accessibility norms. I analyzed the impact of accessibilty norms on usability, aesthetic control over the home and the able-bodied owners’ feeling that the space they live in is put to good use. These results support the hypothesis that beyond concerns about the costs of accessibility, the current implementation of accessibility norms often create frictions that are difficult for other inhabitants to overcome.

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1 Such as the pioneering 1990 American with Disabilities Act (ADA) in the United States, or the Law on Equal Opportunities, Participation and Citizenship for People with Disabilities in France (Loi n°2005-102 du 11 février 2005 pour l’égalité des droits et des chances, la participation et la citoyenneté des personnes handicapées).

2 The Article R111-19-10 of the Construction and Housing Code lists among motivations for granting exemptions the potential costs of limited benefits.

3 Law of the 23rd of November 2018 on the evolution of Housing, Land Management and Digital Technology (Loi n°2018-1021 du 23 novembre 2018 portant sur l’évolution du logement, de l’aménagement et du numérique).

4 These norms primarily focus on physical access, such as providing sufficient space for wheelchair maneuvering, ramps, lifts and automatic doors and adapted parking. For instance, there must be sufficient floor space to enable wheelchair users to navigate in each room (1.5 x 1.5 m); the height of door knobs, windows, and kitchen countertops must be adapted to wheelchair users; additional equipment such as grip bars in the bathrooms and accessible showers must be installed; wheelchair users must be able to place their legs under the sink, which means the depth of the basin must be reduced. Second come accommodations for people with visual impairments, such as tactile flooring, braille signs, luminosity and presence of clear signage and information (with braille or relief). Third, adaptations for people with hearing impairments, such as adapted alarm systems. Finally, there are no technical provision for people with cognitive impairments beyond clear signage and information which are already mandatory for people with visual impairments. See:

5 Visitability and adaptability: communal rooms and the toilet need to be accessible with a wheelchair. The other rooms (e.g., bedrooms, bathrooms) need to be designed in such a way they can be made fully accessible (“habitable”) without changes to the main building structure.

6 Habitability: new housing units must comply with all accessibility requirements described in footnote 4.

7 Insee is the French organization producing demographic and economic statistics. While I could have asked about yearly income, there is a long tradition of using social categories for social status for their correlation with aesthetic preferences, which is relevant in this context.

8 The French Constitutional Council, in its Decision n° 2007-557 DC, taken on the 15th of November 2007, forbids the processing of personal data revealing directly or indirectly the racial or ethnic origins of individuals. Exceptions are made for public organisations conducting surveys on discrimination.

9 I refer here to participants highlighting or discussing material features that were direct consequences of the application of accessibility requirements, such as open space under an accessibility-compliant kitchen sink. This was not previously a usual kitchen design feature.

10 This is likely an accessibility feature: The sliding door was inserted in the wall, which is more costly, despite this building being on the cheaper side of housing. There would not be enough space for a wheelchair user otherwise.

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Titre Table 1. Participants socio-demographic characteristics
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Emeline Brulé, « The good, the ideal, and the accessible home: Perceptions of accessibility norms in domestic environments »Alter, 16-3 | 2022, 57-72.

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Emeline Brulé, « The good, the ideal, and the accessible home: Perceptions of accessibility norms in domestic environments »Alter [En ligne], 16-3 | 2022, mis en ligne le 05 octobre 2022, consulté le 06 décembre 2023. URL :

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Emeline Brulé

University of Sussex

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