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Accessibility – Do We Really Have It Covered?

That seems an easy enough question to answer at first, right? Step out into public places today and you’ll find that wheelchair ramps, specially paved footpaths, acoustic traffic signals for the visually impaired, accessible washrooms and parking spots for wheelchair users, aren’t a rare sight anymore, at least in the city.

Unfortunately, this does not necessarily mean that the needs of people with restricted abilities are being adequately  met, even if we are only looking at the issue of basic public access and mobility.

How Come?

Here’s the thing – although stakeholders (policy makers, public and private sector organisations and even the general public) seem increasingly aware of the needs of people with restricted mobility, our resulting actions seem to display only a minimal understanding of the matter.     

Disability Rights Advocate, Lasanthi Attanayake, said that, as far as the city of Colombo is concerned, there has been “a reasonable amount of improvement since 2009, but this is not sufficient.” In order to be recognised as a disability friendly – or restricted ability friendly – city, public places need to be universally accessible, as well as offer cross-disability access, she explained.

Good examples would be recently developed public areas, such as the Racecourse precinct and Independence Arcade, which do offer some forms of accessibility, such as wheelchair-friendly washrooms. “But when a wheelchair user actually visits the place, you realise Racecourse is accessible from one side only, and Arcade is nearly impossible to access easily,” said Attanayake.

A Basic Right

Dr. Ajith C. S. Perera, a wheelchair user and long-time advocate for the rights of people with restricted mobility, does not believe that sufficient steps have been taken to grant people the right to accessibility.

Dr. Perera, who petitioned the Supreme Court for years to mandate equal access for all, and even contested the August parliamentary elections in the hopes of raising awareness about the matter, explained that laws alone can’t make a change, and that people must take the initiative to understand how serious an issue it is.

“If you think about it, people with restricted mobility make up the largest minority in our country. It’s not only the disabled. We also have an ageing population, and as you grow older, your ability gets restricted,” he said.

The elderly, then, are a sub-unit that make up the larger demographic of people with restricted mobility – which would also include, but are not limited to, wheelchair users, amputees, and those with hearing and sight impediments.

As Dr. Perera rightly points out, the fulfilment of many fundamental rights depends so much on the basic right to accessibility. “Only those who enjoy rights to proper access can enjoy the right to education. How many schools, how many universities in our country are accessible? Everything revolves around the right to accessibility,” he said.

“Access to public buildings is of utmost importance, and this is something that must be taken into consideration when designing such places,” he said, adding that ideally, an accessibility consultant should be a part of such a planning process. Such a consultant himself, Dr. Perera is also of the opinion that accessibility measures must be given more importance in the Architecture curriculum at universities.

It’s not just about wheelchair ramps…

Lasanthi Attanayake’s husband, lawyer and politician Senarath Attanayake, also a disability rights advocate and wheelchair user, pointed out that much of the problems faced by people with restricted mobility lie in people’s attitudes towards the issue. “Sometimes they just don’t care,” he said, adding that change will have to begin with empathy.

He said that Sri Lanka’s public transport services, for instance, offer no room for people with restricted mobility. Many developed nations provide bus services with wheelchair bays, a practice that we can perhaps learn from.

“Measures like this make you feel comfortable. You feel free, you don’t feel as though you are disabled,” said Senarath. He added that equally important to such physical measures, is how people interact with those dealing with disabilities or restricted ability.

His wife, Lasanthi, agrees: “Sometimes people tend to treat you in such a way that you really feel your disability – starting with all the questions they ask! What we need is sensitisation of the issue across all sectors.”

She said that this ‘sensitisation’ needs to be inculcated among the general public, as well extended to education and awareness among employees of service sectors, such as banks, the hotel sector, and airport services, to name a few.

Lasanthi is Founder Director of an organisation called Boundless Discoveries, which provides disability sensitisation, primarily for the tourism sector, and other parts of the business sector. In their aim to promote accessible tourism, Boundless Discoveries’ services cover areas of awareness, training and accessibility audits.

As part of their awareness initiatives, the organisation recently conducted a programme called ‘Grow Old With Us’, at the Racecourse precinct’s popular Saturday event, the Good Market. The main aim of the programme was to invite people to share in the experiences of those with disabilities, or restricted abilities brought about by the natural process of growing old – and highlight the need for an inclusive society.

Activities included walking blindfolded, taking wheelchair rides within the Good Market premises, guessing food items indicated by sign language, and engaging in business / selling while mimicking a condition of a physical disability.

After having participated in these activities, people were asked for their feedback. Based on this, the organisation noted that many people had been previously unaware of the practical realities for a person with restricted mobility. Afterwards, however, they were able to gauge prevailing accessibility limitations in public places such as Racecourse, as well as understand the need for those who are old, or disabled, to be able to move around with ease and dignity.

What both the Attanayakes as well as Dr. Perera pointed out, was that ultimately, it is the individual confronting the problem of restricted mobility who can best gauge the extent to which any accessibility efforts prove beneficial, and in what areas they are lacking. This kind of practical knowledge can contribute greatly when tackling the subject of accessibility.

Half-baked Solutions

So what do the end-users of various accessibility features installed in public places feel about these? While some of these efforts can be applauded, others, sadly, prove to be half-baked solutions. Here are a few very real problems faced by end-users that will perhaps help illustrate this point.

  • Washrooms – often, the wheelchair-friendly stall is situated within the main restroom. And sometimes, this restroom itself is difficult to access, either due to the set of steps at the main entrance, or entrance doors that are too heavy to open and close for a person with restricted ability.

“Sometimes, the accessible toilet may even be locked, and we have to go in search of the person who has the keys,” said Lasanthi.

At other times, there have been instances reported of wheelchair users who were kept waiting because the washrooms were occupied by non-wheelchair users.

Such toilets should also ideally have sinks that can be easily reached by wheelchair users.

  • Supermarkets – are not as easy to access as we may think. Those ramps outside? Not always fit for the average wheelchair user. Technically, the ramps are only designed for trolleys, the incline often being too steep or unfit for a wheelchair user.
  • ATMs – a small number of banks have taken the initiative to set up accessible ATMs around the city. A wheelchair access ramp alone does not solve the problem however. The machine itself needs to be located within a booth large enough to accommodate a wheelchair, and more importantly, the entrance to the machine must not be blocked – as, sadly, we see in some places.

Furthermore, not all ATMs cater to other forms of disability, such as the visually impaired. Ideally, more ATMs should provide braille and ‘speech output’ facilities.

  • Pedestrian crossings – some of the city’s crossings are complemented by acoustic signals, which would assist the visually impaired. The time allocated for pedestrians to actually cross to the other side, however, is often insufficient for people with restricted mobility.
  • Emergency alarms – some buildings – hotels, for instance – have alarms installed for emergencies such as fires. But what measures are taken to warn the deaf.

A Loss to the Country

Earlier this year, a team of social activists carried out an Enabled Elections campaign, promoting accessibility at polling booths across the country, for the August 17 parliamentary elections. The campaign promoted accessibility for those with disabilities and restricted mobility. It also sought to highlight the importance of their participation in politics, and the democratic functioning of a nation.

According to Dr. Perera, such measures are important because while laws do mandate public places to offer equal access, there is “no mechanisation for implementation.” Thus, he feels that the issue must continue to be taken up at policy-making levels.

Furthermore, we already know that a significant segment of our population does in fact grapple with the problem of restricted mobility, and a need for assisted access. A failure to meet these needs then results in a loss of opportunities: both socially and economically. When you think about it, there are people out there who have the potential to contribute to education, to progress and development, in whatever ways they can – but are hindered because basic accessibility and mobility are a luxury.

What they ask for, in the end, is quite simply the chance to live life as normally as possible, and as independently as possible. For a country that loves to talk of development, accessibility should be a matter of greater concern for all of us.

Featured Image Source – globalgenes.org

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