5 February 2013

Uganda: Buildings That Lock the Disabled Out

In our series analysing policy and practice on disability in Uganda, Shifa Mwesigye finds that the way we build all but makes facilities inaccessible to disabled persons.

I first met thirty-year old Steven Hawha when he crawled into a salon on Level Five of Majestic Plaza. He had navigated the long strip of stairs on his fours with a cardboard box full of ladies merchandise strapped onto his chest. The ladies jumped out of their blow dryers and bought shower caps, combs and make up.

Some bought out of sympathy because a physically disabled person had opted to earn a decent pay out of a hard day's work, instead of sitting by a street corner begging for his next meal. Then Hawha asked the hairdresser to watch his merchandise and headed in the direction of an acrid stench.

"Is he going to enter that dirty toilet?" one of the ladies asked.

"What do you want him to do? Get onto his legs and walk? The poor man has nothing to do but navigate that dirty wet floor with his hands and knees because he must use the toilet," the hairdresser replied.

Our eyes followed Hawha until his hands and legs touched the wet floor and he disappeared behind the doors of the public toilet. Everyone expressed shock and empathy. But he had no choice because nature had called. Hawha says he pays the janitor to mop the floor first when he can afford. When I met him again, sitting down at the entrance to Pioneer Mall on Wilson Street, he had a group of people purchasing from him.

His cardboard was now bigger with more merchandise. A stone throw away, another physically disabled man stood on one leg and a walking stick begging for a few coins. A family man with three children, Hawha says that when his stock increased, he couldn't manage to go up and down the stairs in the various shopping malls that are springing up around town. So he asked for permission and management of Pioneer Mall allowed him to set up at their entrance.

"I have been a hawker for all my life. As a lame man I know everything I want comes out of hard work. I see many people like me who have two legs but are begging," he says.

When I ask if he knows about his rights that buildings are supposed to provide ramps for a wheel chair or an elevator for him, he says that is the least of his worries, never mind that he knows nothing about such laws.

"I don't know anything about the law, all I know is that if I don't work no one is going to care for me and my family. So if the government cannot properly care for disabled people like us, how can we know that we have rights? Who cares about them?" Hawha asks rhetorically.

Yet when the minister of Works and Transport presented the 2012 Building Control Bill to Parliament, not much was mentioned to make life easy for persons with disabilities (PWDs) like Hawha. People affected by accessibility barriers include people who use wheelchairs, those with limited movement abilities and with visual and audio impairments as well as intellectual and psychosocial disabilities.

Clause 40(1)(b) of the bill states that a building committee may, by notice in writing, order any person to stop building operations where the building is one to which the public is to have access but does not provide access for PWDs. The bill, which was drafted to give building and construction guidelines to all contractors, does not address the accessibility needs of PWDs at all.

Yet Uganda is a signatory to the UN Convention on Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD), which requires states to ensure appropriate access to persons with disabilities, on an equal basis with others, to the physical environment, to transportation, to information and communications, including information and communications technologies and systems, and to other facilities and services open or provided to the public, both in urban and in rural areas.

The accessibility standards report drafted by Uganda National Action on Physical Disability (UNAPD) states that Uganda is not barrier-free. A barrier free environment enables an individual with or without a disability to access every service with dignity and independence. The major hurdle to a barrier-free environment is the lack of standards on accessibility.

The ministry's Building and Construction Inspection Report of August 2007 revealed that 95% of the buildings in Kampala, Mpigi and Wakiso districts are not accessible. The report was meant to give guidance to architects, property developers, policymakers and implementers during the design and construction of buildings. Vincent Kafeero the Programme Officer at Uganda National Action on Physical Disability (UNAPD) says PWDs have petitioned Parliament and held continuous talks with the ministry of Works to include the accessibility standards as Schedule Four of the Building Control Bill.

The standards provide practical ways of how an accessible environment should look like and address the hurdles. The accessibility standards report states that providing uniform standards will guide policy makers and implementers on how to ensure accessibility to persons with disabilities. The report states that owners of buildings must address issues like door and passage width, floor surfaces, counter heights, door handles, signage, audio signals, and tactile guides, thereby fulfilling the mandate of the convention on rights of persons with disabilities.

The report demands that for one to obtain the triple chain, PWDs must be able to exit the home and access a sidewalk or pathway, enter a vehicle, alight from the vehicle onto a sidewalk or a pathway near the workplace, reach the entrance of the building, enter the building, manoeuvre within the building, enter the office or specific place in the building and reach their work station.

"It takes only one inaccessible link in the trip chain to make the journey impossible. Therefore, each link must be considered and improved upon to foster a barrier-free environment," the report which was developed with collaboration with the ministry of Gender, Labour and Social Development, states.

Drawing from the recommendations of the CRPD, the report recommends that floor surfaces should be hard, even and slippery- resistant and should have rails on stairs and ramps to enable PWDs like Hawha to move. Doors should be light and easy to turn and entrances should be sufficiently wide. Parking space should be close to the main entrance and furniture, counters, equipment, power sockets, and plugs should be placed at suitable heights reachable by persons who use wheelchairs.

For blind persons and persons with visual impairments, builders should put changes in the texture of the floor material. This helps a blind person in identifying doors, stairs, steps, ramps and pedestrian crossings. Written information should be made available in Braille and visual information should be accompanied by audible information.

For people with hearing impairments, rooms should be acoustically insulated and supplementary visual information should be provided for deaf persons and persons with hearing impairments, such as alarms and bells in lifts. People with learning or intellectual disabilities sign postings and notice boards with pictures and symbols can be more easily read and understood than in one sign.

"We know disability issues are not priorities. Why don't they stop the construction of a building that does not provide accessibility for PWDs? Or why not just withdraw their licence?" Kafeero asks. "This is when people will learn."

Kafeero believes that if all these recommendations are put into consideration when the bill is passed into a law and government follows up on implementation, then Uganda will be well underway in fulfilling its commitments to the CRPD. Yet Alex Ndeezi, who represents PWDs in Central Region in Parliament, says things are changing, with some of the laws opening access for PWDs already implemented.

"Ministry of Education has instructed all schools intending to erect new buildings to provide accessibility for us and KCCA now cannot approve a building without provision of accessibility," Ndeezi says.

But Ronald Kasule the programme coordinator of Access for Action Uganda, who uses a wheelchair to move, says that laws are a lip service and nothing is implemented. He says the National Council for Disability is poorly funded - receiving Shs 500m annually - to monitor the whole country. Ndeezi recognises that the existing laws on rights of PWDs can't be implemented because they are weak.

"If a law cannot be implemented, it means that law is weak and it needs to be strengthened especially in terms of sanctions and implementation machinery," Ndeezi says.

This Observer feature was prepared with support from the National Union of Disabled Persons of Uganda (Nudipu)

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