Attention engineersNew buildings are coming up all over, but most are not accessible to disabled people
The construction sector is bouncing back. After a period of paralysis following the earthquakes, a tour around the Kathmandu Valley will reveal its resurgence. New buildings are coming up at a very fast speed, proving that investors mean business and have no time to lose. Sadly, many of these new constructions have not been designed to be disabled-friendly, meaning that physical barriers will prevent persons with physical disabilities from using them. For example, just a few metres from the Jawalakhel roundabout, a brand new shop of an international chain selling makeup products is totally inaccessible to customers with physical disabilities. A majority of new buildings have ignored not only the universal rights of persons with disabilities but also their constitutional rights.
Far from satisfied
What is truly shocking is the fact that the existing law on disabilities already has provisions to ensure that all new buildings for public or commercial use must be accessible and disabled-friendly. Persons with disabilities have been struggling for their rights the world over. The revolutionary Americans with Disability Act (ADA) which is probably the most comprehensive piece of legislation on matters of disability, was achieved only after decades of court battles and non-violent protests.
Something similar is happening in the European Union (EU) where disability activists from all member states are strongly pushing for a European Disability Act that is aimed at creating one single piece of legislation for all of them. The act is specifically focused on extending the rights of persons with disabilities to different sectors like services, covering products like ATMs, smartphones, ticketing machines and, very strategically, the entire transportation sector across the European Union which means that planes, trains, buses and ferries or cruising boats have to be accessible to persons with disabilities.
On March 6, a vast coalition representing civil society from across Europe, disability organisations and not-for-profit organisations held a public demonstration outside the European Parliament, right in the middle of the European Quarter, the decision making heart of the EU. The protesters are not happy with a draft of the act proposed by the European Commission, the executive body of the EU. In a classic ‘European’ compromise among member states, the commission offered a diluted version of the act that is still too far from meeting the expectations and real needs of European citizens living with disabilities.
The European Disability Forum, one of the biggest platforms representing the interests of 80 million citizens with disabilities, issued a statement calling on the European Parliament to broaden the scope of the legislation by including all products and services. The forum also demanded that micro, small and medium-sized enterprises should not be excluded from applying the act while calling for a strong implementation system. The demand shows the level of ambition and thoroughness of European citizens when asserting their rights. There will probably be more demonstrations in the coming days if a specialised technical committee of the European Parliament in charge of the legislation does not change its position and rewrite the draft.
In the US and members of the EU, the difficult part lies in enacting a set of legislation supporting the rights of persons with disabilities. But in countries like Nepal with a weak rule of law, the challenge is not only lobbying the government for a stronger and better law, but also, and this is the trickiest part, ensuring its enforcement. Keeping this in mind, ways must be explored to ensure that any new public or commercial construction obeys the existing laws. It is high time that the disability community, which is a strong lobby for the rights of persons with disabilities, adopted a new strategy that combines legal pathways and stronger and louder forms of peaceful protests on the streets.
While organising workshops and discussion forums is always important and not per se a waste of money and resources, filing legal suits in the Supreme Court, like has been done in the past, will remain key. We probably need to be a bit more confident and vocal to spread the message across society for a more inclusive Nepal. One idea would be to gently let owners or tenants of upcoming commercial buildings that are not disabled-friendly know about the existing legislation concerning disability. We could start with public accessibility audits, followed by roundtables explaining faults in compliance. We do not need, at least not right at the beginning, to demonstrate loudly outside their shops and complexes; we simply need to nudge them towards compliance. After all, a constructive, but at the same time, a rights-asserting dialogue should always be the first step.
Only if this method does not bring any result should we become louder, but always in a pacific and non-violent way. Obviously, the media can play an important role in amplifying the need for more inclusive urban spaces in the country. At the same time, a firmer rights-based approach should be used with the local authorities in charge of issuing building permits that violate the law. It is high time that public servants took the rights of persons with disabilities seriously, and this time persons with disabilities should show no tolerance towards incessant abuse of their rights.
Galimberti is co-founder of ENGAGE and editor of Sharing4good