Urban challenges for disabled people

Photo shows the stalls at the WUF9 exhibition area.

THE ninth session of the World Urban Forum (WUF9) is currently ongoing at the Kuala Lumpur Convention Centre. The conference, the largest United Nations conference on sustainable urban development and cities, runs until Tuesday (Feb 13). It is convened by UN-Habitat, the United Nations Programme on Human Settlements, and held in different cities every two years.

An estimated 25,000 participants from 185 countries have been attending assemblies, high level and stakeholders’ roundtables, dialogues, caucus meetings, networking events and exhibition by various countries and agencies on urban development and related initiatives. The theme for this edition is ‘Cities for All, Cities 2030: Implementing the New Urban Agenda’.

I have attended two days of the conference so far. To attend the conference on Thursday, I took the KLIA Transit right after conducting two training sessions on disability for Malaysia Airlines. The journey from the Kuala Lumpur International Airport to KL Sentral took 35 minutes. After that, I switched over to the Kelana Jaya Line LRT to get to KLCC Station.

After taking a stair lift and then an elevator to get to the ground floor of the KLCC Suria shopping mall from the LRT station, it took another 10-minute push over uneven tiled paths to the Kuala Lumpur Convention Centre. All in, I covered a distance of about 3km that day, not including visiting the massive exhibition area, which could easily be another 3km.

Truth be told, I have never pushed myself so far in one single day. When I got home later that evening, both my arms were aching. The distance was not the problem. It was manoeuvring over the uneven surfaces, gaps, steep ramps, and thick carpets that sapped me of energy. I had to use more effort than necessary.

There were some parts of the journey where I had to request for assistance, especially getting in and out of the trains because of the gap and height difference between train and platform. The ramps at various places were also too steep for me to manage independently.

Non-disabled people are usually not inconvenienced by these breaks in connectivity but for wheelchair users, small barriers are as good as brick walls and impassable chasms. This is how our urban environment is set up. Little consideration is given to the safe and convenient use of wheelchair users.

Bear in mind that Malaysia is going to be an ageing nation by 2030, when 15.3 per cent of the country’s population or 5.8 million people will be aged 65 years old and above. At the moment, our infrastructure and services also do not fully cater to the mobility needs of older persons.

This is the reality of urban living. The small barriers that prevent us from moving freely and independently, and may even endanger us, are often overlooked. Our mobility is impeded in many parts of a journey. That makes going to school, work or other activities difficult in some way and impossible in many other ways.

On Friday, I attended a stakeholders’ roundtable on persons with disabilities. Panellists for the session were from diverse backgrounds and conditions. From disabled persons to architects to a vice-mayor, they were all involved in making urban areas more accessible and inclusive through legislation, policies, code of practices, implementation and enforcement. The one common denominator that plagued disabled people, regardless of whether we are in Latin America, Asia or Europe, is that we face similar problems with accessibility.

These facilities, as they rightly acknowledged, were not only for disabled people but also for everyone to use safely and conveniently. The panellists shared best practices implemented in their respective countries and how the local communities are benefitting from these changes. At the same time, they also spoke about the flaws in the system and how they overcame the challenges by engaging and involving other stakeholders at various levels to ensure their interests are not neglected.

Being 15 per cent of the global population, the interests of disabled people are grossly under-represented in this conference and at the stakeholders’ roundtable. There were only handful of us at the roundtable for persons with disabilities and at the conference. Was it a mobilisation issue? Or a lack of publicity? Or apathy? Whatever the reason, we need to come out in force in events like this as evidence of our numbers in society.

Although my second day was less eventful, I faced a different set of challenges. The convention centre itself was accessible but the venue was cordoned off for security reasons. Visitors and their bags had to go through security screening. The normal pathways were blocked with no clear signage to indicate alternative entrance and exits. The security staff were also not trained to guide disabled visitors.

Luckily for me, I bumped into Dr Chung from the Medical Rehabilitation Clinic of University of Malaya Medical Centre where I go for my regular check-ups. With no ramps or accessible entrance nearby, he carried me up a flight of steps together with several security personnel. The organisers should have identified routes for disabled visitors or at least instructed the security personnel to provide reasonable accommodation by allowing us through the cordon.

The two-day experience attending the conference by myself mostly gave me valuable insight on what a commuter in a wheelchair would face around Kuala Lumpur and its conurbation. I have not even tried the stage buses yet. From what I can see, commuting by bus would pose even greater challenges.

Town planners, the local government, public transport operators, builders and other stakeholders must seriously come together to make our cities more accessible and safe, especially for people with mobility impairments. That is not all, other matters that must be given consideration are affordable housing, employment opportunities, leisure activities, access to essential services, and all aspects of urban living for disabled people.

If we continue doing what we are doing now, the situation will never change. Hopefully, the lessons, best practices and valuable experiences shared by the delegates will be taken into account. Otherwise it would be a wasted opportunity to bring the conference here and do nothing about building people-friendly cities after that.

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