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Denmark on a journey to build a society for everybody

The concept of universal design is spreading in Denmark, and the goal is to make a society where everybody can participate and contribute on equal terms regardless of disabilities. It is much more than accessibility; it is a new view on life. The Vandhalla pool in Eastern Jutland makes the dream come true. 
'Leave no one behind', the UN sustainable development goals so idealistically say. The society must include persons with disability, compensate and give everybody equal access to all services. Persons in wheelchair and persons with reduced vision, hearing impairment or cognitive challenges shall live with dignity and participate in society with all their resources. 

The ideal may sound hard to obtain. But here and there in Danish society, a new way of including people is gaining momentum. From the beginning, architects and planners design buildings and IT systems universally by listening to the needs of users with impairment.

Did you know

The concept of universal design was developed by the American architect and wheelchair user Ron Mace in the 1990’s. He found that persons with disability often felt stigmatised by using special ramps and so-called add-ons to make buildings comply with rules of accessibility. Since then, universal design has spread from architecture to programs and services like IT systems and education.

Working to spread universal design

The concept of universal design is emerging among groups of architects, engineers and planners in Denmark. One of its main proponents is Bevica Fonden, an almost 150-years-old foundation that works to create a more inclusive society. 
“We hope to change the perception of people with disability; we want to avoid the distinction between them and us. We all experience impairments and disabilities during a whole life, and we should build society and services accordingly. Universal design is much more than accessibility. No one shall be left behind,” Camilla Ryhl, head of research at Bevica Fonden says.

The foundation has created the Universal Design Hub, which facilitates two research networks on applied universal design. The hub cooperates amongst others with Technical University of Denmark, The Royal Academy and Design School Kolding.  

Probably the most accessible pool in Europe 

A good example of universal design is the Vandhalla pool and sport complex at the folk high school Egmont Højskolen in Hou, Eastern Jutland. The architects included potential users with different physical or cognitive challenges in the design process, and the result was a pool that makes dreams come true. 

According to the principal, Søren Møllgaard Kristensen, Vandhalla is probably the most accessible pool in Europe. He points out that universal design is not a limitation.

“Not if you incorporate it from the beginning. The new conditions challenge architects to create original and different buildings. The ramp of the pool is not really a ramp, it is a gentle slope. Children love to play there, in the shallow water,” Søren Møllgaard Kristensen says.

There are no steps, and the facilities have body lifts and compensating equipment in the changing rooms. Wheelchair users, eg. persons with cerebral palsy, easily get into the water with bathing chairs on wheels.

To use the 90-meter-long water slide, an elevator takes you to the top platform, where the tile floor is gently sloping, so that both people standing and sitting get a view of the sea through the windows. Using a body lift, persons with disability get on the slide that has a button for a water boost. With that they start sliding down - alone or together with their assistant. 

The design of Vandhalla and the sport complex accommodates users with different disabilities. By including the diverse needs of many users from the beginning, persons with disability can use the facilities on more equal terms.

A sense of freedom

One of the wheelchair users at the folk high school is Ann-Katrine Kviesgaard.

There is a sincere expression of happiness in her face, when her personal assistant, Louise Faartoft, lets go of her, and Ann-Katrine floats in the water, only aided by three orange pool noodles of foam.

“It gives me an immense feeling of freedom, being able to do what everybody else can. I have never been swimming before I came here,” Ann-Katrine Kviesgaard says. Her legs are paralyzed, and the warm water is good for her as she easily gets sub-cooled.

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It gives me an immense feeling of freedom, being able to do what everybody else can. I have never been swimming before I came here. 
Ann-Katrine Kviesgaard

Ann-Katrine and Louise are both students at the boarding school that runs on the common principles of Danish folk high schools, eg. with focus on ethics, enlightenment and democracy. But Egmont Højskolen has a twist. It mixes people with and without disability, and some students work as personal assistants for others. Both benefit of it, and the job has changed Louise Faartoft’s view on disability.

“We like each other and get very close as a team, because I support Ann-Katrine in all sorts of situations. I have got a much more natural view on people with disability,” Louise Faartoft says.

Did you know

In Denmark, a person with severe impairment can employ personal assistants paid by the municipality. The assistants perform care, monitor, assist, and accompany the person in daily life, ensuring that the person can study, work, and participate in society. 

Feeling equal in the water

The student Benjamin Bom Jørgensen who has cerebral palsy enjoys the water slide.

“It is great fun, and it is so cool to use the pool. I feel whole. When I am in the water with my friends, there is no difference at all. We are equal,” Benjamin Bom Jørgensen says. 

He employs three personal assistants during his 19-week-long course. One of them is Julie Vium.

“We are all friends here, with or without disability, and we spend all our time together. We have classes together and the classes are customized, so that everybody participates at a challenging level,” Julie Vium says.

Changing views on people with disabilities 

The principal says that his students change their view on disability.

“When barriers are removed, you experience yourself as a human, not as person with disability. The students without disability offer something when they help their friends to participate. And they get a new view on disability. They will never again treat a person with impairment with distance.”

Louise Faartoft, assisting Ann-Katrine Kviesgaard to get out of the water, puts it directly: “Persons with disability are just like me and everybody else.”