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‘Seamless Connectivity’ is the new buzzword in access: say experts

United Nations Development Programme (U.N.D.P.) organised a National Conference on Universal Design and Accessible Transport in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia recently. Javed Abidi from India was invited as a speaker along with other international experts. Among other things, five baseline reports prepared by N.C.P.E.D.P. on the current status of the policies and schemes for people with disabilities in India caught the attention of Malaysias Social Justice Minister. Dorodi Sharma of D.N.I.S. reports.

The first thing that strikes you when you step out of the airport into Kuala Lumpur is how it can be so well mistaken for a first world city swanky roads, cars, buildings belying its tag of a developing nation. But if you happen to step out on the roads and if you happen to be a wheel chair user, the reality hits you. Moving around Kuala Lumpur is as much of a nightmare as it is in New Delhi.

The pavements are inaccessible with no ramps or kerb cuts, forcing wheel chair users to leave the pedestrian walkways onto the roads with fast moving traffic zooming past! Resources do not seem to be a problem. And so one keeps wondering what went wrong? How was disability left out of their radar screen as well?

The U.N.D.P. sponsored National Conference on Universal Design and Accessible Transport in Kuala Lumpur on March 1 and 2 in association with the Ministry of Women, Family and Community Development tried to address exactly that. The objective was to mainstream disability into all aspects of policy making, using Universal Design to create an enabling environment in terms of public transportation and infrastructure.

The two day conference was inaugurated by Y.B. Datin Paduka Chew Mei Fun, Deputy Minister of Women, Family and Community Development and had experts from Malaysia, Singapore, Hong Kong, India and United Kingdom talk about various aspects of accessibility from technical to advocacy.

The plenary session saw Dr. Kit Mitchell, an expert on Universal Design and Accessibility from United Kingdom speak about International Good Practices. The other topics covered during the two days were Policies on Accessibility and Universal Design from Formulation to Implementation; Universal Design in Practice; Advocacy for Accessibility and Universal Design and so on.

Malaysian Minister (left) going through N.C.P.E.D.P's reports

Speakers at the conference included Aiko Akiyama from United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (U.N.E.S.C.A.P.); Dr. Norani Hashim, Director, Department of Development of Persons with Disabilities, Malaysia; Joseph Kwan, Consultant in Universal Design and Accessibility from Hong Kong; Judy Anne Wee, Principal Consultant, Level Field Consultants from Singapore; and Javed Abidi, Honorary Director, National Centre for Promotion of Employment for Disabled People (N.C.P.E.D.P.), India.

The conference was attended by nearly 150 people - from various government agencies, policy makers, urban planners, architects, transport companies and civil society groups. The issues addressed ranged from technical know how to advocacy. However, the most important issue that surfaced was the concept of seamless connectivity.

Having an accessible building or accessible transport in isolation is not enough till we have seamless connectivity that ensures that a disabled person is able to get out of the house onto the roads and then onto the transport to be able to go to schools, colleges, or any public place for that matter.

The importance of advocacy and strict enforcement was addressed. Countries like Singapore have very stringent enforcement mechanisms for access. But in Malaysia, the story seemed to be the same as is in India. Policies are there but are not being implemented.

The building bye laws of Malaysia were amended to include accessibility two decades back. Unfortunately they were not followed at all. In fact, during the late 90s when Kuala Lumpur was preparing for Commonwealth Games and the city was going through massive development, access was nowhere in the scheme of things. Malaysia also has three different standards that deal with the issue of access. But as a government official admitted at the conference, no one seems to be aware of them.

But now things are beginning to move in the right direction. Datuk Seri Sharizat Abdul Jalil, Minister for Women, Family and Community Development, made an appearance on the second day and assured participants of the governments commitment towards disability. In her speech, she reiterated that she envisages Kuala Lumpur and Malaysia to be at par with European and American cities as far as access is concerned.

The highlight of her speech was the announcement that Malaysia would soon ratify U.N.C.R.P.D.

Five baseline reports prepared by N.C.P.E.D.P. on the current status of the policies and schemes for people with disabilities in the areas of health, employment, accessibility, communication & information technology and rural development in India were highly appreciated by everyone. In fact, the Minister took a keen interest in them and expressed the need for Malaysia to come out with similar reports.

The ground realities in Malaysia may be the same as in India. However, the huge difference was that unlike India, they seem to have a greater sense of discomfort at being so far behind countries like Singapore, Hong Kong, etc. And it would not be a surprise if national pride plays a major role in ensuring that in the next couple of years, a wheelchair user is able to have a dream run in the streets of Kuala Lumpur.