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THE creation of an inclusive and accessible society should be the ideal of every democratic government. However, access to equal opportunities, quality education, health services, clean water, sustainable energy, housing, pedestrian-friendly roads and footpaths, safe public transport, and an eco-friendly environment are not easy to come by in developing countries. For most persons with disabilities, this lack of accessibility becomes an existential problem.
Several years ago, the government introduced the Accessibility Code of Pakistan and disseminated a design manual for accessibility which provided technical guidelines to modify buildings, roads and parking lots according to the specific needs of wheelchair users, and visual- and hearing-impaired persons.
The book spelt out not only specific internationally recognised standards for designing ramps, elevators, platform lifts, stairs, railings, vestibules, entrances, doors, corridors and toilets, but also roads, streets, footpaths and pedestrian crossings with appropriate signage in Braille and voice alerts to enable people with disabilities to commute between home, work and other destinations.
This excellent publication was thrown in the dustbin by apathetic bureaucrats who failed to implement the building codes and safety standards specified therein: even today, the metro-bus stations are without ramps and the much-touted signal-free roads are anathema to the disabled.
At the recent Policy Dialogue on Inclusive Higher Education organised by Lums in Lahore, physical accessibility was highlighted as a major issue given that people with disabilities were largely absent from public spaces including banks and polling stations due to the absence of proper footpaths, ramps and Braille signage.
The disabled are absent from public spaces due to a lack of facilities.
Similarly, almost all websites of government offices, universities and banks, as well as telecom, media, and private-sector industries have no special enabling features for use by visually impaired persons. Lack of information and limited access to job opportunities exacerbates their social exclusion.
Just as the Indian government scrambled to make ramps when Stephen Hawking visited India in 2001 (he still could not visit the Taj Mahal), the Pakistan government was embarrassed when officials had to carry wheelchair users up staircases during the International Women with Disabilities Conference in January 2016. But now India has embarked upon a national programme of training 1,000 disability inspectors to audit 2,500 public buildings across India under the Accessible India Initiative, which focuses on removing barriers in the environment.
The Department of Empowerment of Persons with Disabilities under the central government is spearheading the initiative on a fast-track basis, targeting railways stations, airports and tourist destinations, modifying roads and footpaths, building ramps, and widening and lowering doors of railway coaches to allow wheelchairs to pass through. And a new disability rights bill proposes guaranteed employment and six months in prison for violators of the law.
Accessibility issues for persons with disabilities are recognised and legislated for in Pakistan. The National Plan of Action for Persons with Disabilities identified 17 critical areas for intervention, including the creation of a barrier-free physical environment in all public places and private and commercial buildings. This was followed by the Special Citizens Act 2008 which bound the public and private sector to provide access to wheelchair users. It further made it mandatory for concerned authorities to allocate special seats on public transport and facilities for special citizens on roads and footpaths.
In 2009, prior to the 18th Amendment, the Ministry of Social Welfare announced that visually impaired persons would be given special cheque books with Braille and Talking ATMs would be introduced. This did not happen although the State Bank was on board. Even a shoddy privilege such as the 2pc employment quota in public and private sectors is not being implemented because of lack of prohibitive fines.
Many of these problems can be addressed by the bureaucracy simply by adhering to the laws that already exist. For example, building codes for accessibility can be enforced by the provincial, municipal and district development authorities as SOPs before approving plans for new buildings, roads and housing societies.
Pemra can make it mandatory for all TV channels to introduce sign language for the hearing-impaired; the science and technology ministry can purchase enabling software in Urdu for government websites and provincial education departments can introduce Braille as an optional subject in schools as is being done in Karachi.
The Securities and Exchange Commission of Pakistan can direct the corporate sector to submit regular reports on the status of implementation of accessibility laws and building codes in their offices and buildings; the State Bank can ask all banks to provide special cheque books with Braille, etc. But all this and more is possible only if there is accountability of all concerned, and a sensitive government in power.
The writer is a former federal secretary.
Published in Dawn, April 20th, 2016