Tuesday, June 15

Getting it right

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ONE would expect that the wheelchair logo beside a male and female symbol to indicate a toilet suitable for disabled persons. That was what I used to believe, until I had a couple of nasty experiences using them.

I was unaccompanied at the Penang International Airport to catch a flight to Kuala Lumpur and thought it was a good idea to empty my bladder before boarding. When I was done in the toilet, I had difficulty gripping and turning the round knob to open the door because of my weak hands.

After several futile attempts, I knocked on the door for help. A cleaner heard me and tried to open the door from outside but was unsuccessful. She asked me to wait while she went to get the keys. I somehow managed to unlock and open the door before she got back.

Another time, I had an urgent need to use a toilet in a shopping mall. I found one with the wheelchair logo. The door opened inwards. It could not be closed after I was inside. A friend helped to manoeuvre my wheelchair and got the door closed.

Imagine my horror when I realised that I could not fully open the door when I wanted to get out because my wheelchair was in the way. We spent 20 minutes manoeuvring my wheelchair before I could finally squeeze my way out of that tight space.

Those two real-life situations illustrate that not all facilities affixed with the wheelchair logo are genuinely accessible to disabled persons. Some are done for the sake of having the so-called facilities without giving much thought to functionality while others are due to apathy and ignorance.

The street environment is also fraught with danger. My wife and I fell off a kerb once while she was trying to push my wheelchair around a lamppost that was installed right in the middle of a walkway. Fortunately, we only suffered superficial injuries.

Indiscriminate placement of street furniture such as overhanging signboards, garbage bins and uncovered drains are safety hazards to blind persons. A while back, I met a blind friend who had a plaster on his forehead. He told me that a manhole cover along the usual path he took was missing one day.

He fell into the manhole and sustained a gash on his forehead. He could have drowned. This is how dangerous it can be for disabled persons when public facilities are not properly maintained. Likewise, ramps that are too steep and broken pavements are a danger to wheelchair users and people with mobility impairments.

There are three official codes of practice for access and safety for disabled persons in Malaysia. The Malaysian Standard MS 1183, MS 1184 and MS 1331 deal with means of escape in the event of a fire, access to buildings and access outside buildings respectively.

For example, buildings are required to have allocated spaces where disabled persons can seek refuge in the event of a fire. This is imperative in instances where escape routes are blocked or in multi-storey buildings where elevators have stopped working.

Among others, the code of practice recommends that an accessible toilet should have a dimension of 1.5 metres by 2 metres to allow for enough space for a wheelchair to turn. The height of the washbasin, toilet bowl and other fittings are also prescribed. Lever handles are recommended over round door knobs for the convenience of people with limited hand dexterity.

As for the street environment, street furniture should be installed away from pedestrian walkways and especially tactile guide paths. This is to prevent blind persons from walking straight into them and injuring themselves. It also provides an unobstructed path for wheelchair users.

A cursory survey around the major cities in Malaysia will show that facilities for disabled persons are extremely limited. In cases where such facilities are available, many are not built according to the codes of practice, rendering them non-functional and even dangerous to use.

The only way to determine that these facilities are in compliance with the codes of practice is to conduct access audits. This is an exercise where trained access audit inspectors physically assess existing facilities, identify access problems, submit a report and provide recommendations for improvement or upgrades accordingly.

Access audit inspectors evaluate buildings and their surroundings in relation to accessibility and ease of use by a wide range of people, including people with sensory and mobility impairments. A typical audit begins from entrances right up to all the amenities within the building including toilets and fire escapes.

In addition to that, inspectors will appraise the provision of proper and adequate signage for the convenience of way finding. The service and attitude of staff with regards to supporting disabled persons who may need assistance in the course of their business in the buildings may also be observed and assessed.

Recommendations from access audit exercises may include just simple rearrangement of furniture to major and costly upgrades of facilities. Not all the recommendations will be acted upon. It all depends on the priority and budget of the establishments concerned. Nonetheless, a good report usually provides alternatives to costly upgrades that can be effectively be implemented as well.

Access audits in Malaysia are still mostly done on a voluntary and ad hoc basis. There is a need to train and certify personnel to carry out these inspections in a comprehensive and professional manner in compliance with Malaysian standards and best practices.

While access audits are important, it is more practical and cost effective to get things right at the planning and design stages before the first brick is laid. This practice will save on the hassle of renovating and incurring major expenses after construction is completed. In time, I hope that facilities with the wheelchair logo are really ones that disabled persons can use and that I will never be trapped in a public toilet again.

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