Better accessibility brings better community

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People living with disabilities not only encounter challenges and hardships in their everyday lives but are also unable to exercise their full rights as accessibility issues take a back seat. Without actual accessibility facilities, people with disabilities are unlikely to live independently and will continue to need constant help from others to perform their daily duties. Even when they want to drop by a store to get groceries, visit the hospital or go to school, they require a helper to assist their commute.

A visually impaired couple, who work at Best Massage Salon, shared about their experience going to work. They apparently have to transit two or more buses to get to the salon – no easy task for two visually impaired people.

The husband usually alights first and helps his wife deboard. You’d expect Mongolians, who are “notorious” for their hospitality, to stretch a helping hand but this hardly happens, they said. Some passengers even shove them for being slow.

As the pair can’t see which buses are arriving, they need to constantly ask others to avoid getting on the wrong bus or missing their stop.

“I’m scared of falling in the bus and climbing up and down the steps because some buses tend to have higher steps,” the wife stated. “In general, people living with disabilities face quite a handful when commuting by a bus. Especially those in wheelchairs need the assistance of at least one or two people so most decide not to travel by bus.”

The couple wished public buses to be equipped with a ramp, have accessible handles, mobility device, and other accessibility-related equipment to enable people with visual impairment, hearing impairment, and spinal cord injury to travel on their own.

“Across the world, people with disabilities have poorer health outcomes, lower education achievements, less economic participation and higher rates of poverty than people without disabilities. This is partly because people with disabilities experience barriers in accessing services that many of us have long taken for granted, including health, education, employment, and transport as well as information. These difficulties are exacerbated in less advantaged communities,” outlined the 2011 World Report on Disability of the World Health Organization and World Bank. “To achieve the long-lasting, vastly better development prospects, we must empower people living with disabilities and remove the barriers which prevent them from participating in their communities, getting a quality education, finding decent work, and having their voices heard.”

On the other hand, the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, effective since May 2008, reaffirms that all persons with all types of disabilities must enjoy all human rights and fundamental freedoms. To enable persons with disabilities to live independently and participate fully in all aspects of life, it underpins that countries need to take appropriate measures to ensure access for people with disabilities (on an equal basis with others) to the physical environment, transportation, information and communications, and other facilities and services open or provided to the public, both in urban and in rural areas.

Mongolia has been seeing some progress in improving accessibility for the disabled. For example, there are more roads with tactile paving to help the visually impaired pedestrians travel. Mongolia has also adopted the MNS 6055:2009 General Requirements on Space and Setting Standard for Disable Person in Civil Structure. The country has built a decent legal environment for protecting the rights of people with disabilities. However, it is hardly put into practice, with no real effort put into eliminating inconveniences and hardships for people with disabilities in general.

In this article, let’s look at initiatives and ideas that other countries are adopting rather than the things that are slowing progress in creating a “smarter” and more accessible community. When we hear “international practice” or “global standard”, we can’t help but worry about the cost. But this is not always the case. Some features and technologies for improving accessibility can be unexpectedly simple to build or develop. Moreover, this isn’t something brand new – fresh out of the mind. What we need to do is enforce existing regulations. For example, the Mongolian law prohibits the State Emergency Commission from accepting requests to build that don’t meet accessibility requirements and orders authorities to ensure the disable can travel freely via public transportation modes. These regulations must be enforced to provide services that are safe, comfortable and accessible to everyone, including seniors and people with disabilities. Construction companies and other stakeholders must be reminded of the national standards for the environmental and internal organization of social infrastructure, housing, and public buildings that are accessible to people with disabilities and meet their needs.

A study was conducted in 2020 to assess infrastructure for people with disabilities. It evaluated 24 buildings and facilities, their parking area, traffic intersections, and crossings, based on 50 indicators. The study found that 28.5 percent of assessed buildings didn’t have accessibility plans and 21.7 percent failed to provide adequate infrastructure for people with disabilities. The survey found that most organizations did not meet the minimum requirements, such as providing unobstructed ramps for people with disabilities, clear access to exits and entries, guide for people in wheelchairs and with visual impairment, signs, and electronic bulletin boards. The results were the same for roads, streets, and other public areas.

Public transportation is for everyone

The Ulaanbaatar public transportation service claims to serve everyone, but in reality, it has overlooked passengers with disabilities, mainly those suffering from spinal cord injury or visual impairment. The United States Law on Persons with Disabilities views the lack of access to public transportation due to inadequate accessibility features as a form of discrimination against persons with disabilities. In other words, the Mongolian public transportation service is discriminating against those living with disabilities. Relevant ministries, administrations, organizations, and officials need to cut off this discrimination and pay attention to this matter in the future.

The study illustrated that most people in wheelchairs avoid traveling by public bus because they don’t have any ramps or lifts. In an attempt to address this issue, six public transportation service companies in Ulaanbaatar allocated a special area for wheelchair users on 56 buses. These buses are still in service but they haven’t increased the accessibility of public buses much due to the insufficient number of buses with the necessary accessibility features. The Ulaanbaatar Transportation Department must bring this issue up to transportation inspectors.

Unable to find buses with ramps, people in wheelchairs or on crutches are forced to travel by taxi, which is more expensive to ride. This can cause a considerable financial burden to people who have to pay high medical bills. International standards require public buses to have ramps and lifts to help people with disabilities aboard and alight buses safely and comfortably. Installing ramps isn’t so hard to do especially when the public transportation sector has been generating more profit in recent years. This tiny improvement can serve the whole community better. 

Accessibility of physical environments must be re-vamped

Russia has been treating people living with disabilities as a high priority for over 20 years. It launched the Accessible Environment Program for the Disabled in 2009. Many projects were completed within this scope, including the removal of road fences that had restricted the mobility of people in wheelchairs. The program created pedestrian sidewalks, with sufficient space for mobility, along streets and public areas. This is something local companies and organizations can keep in mind when building and renewing roads in the future.

Another low-cost way to make Ulaanbaatar and other areas accessible is by placing mobility devices, signs, and markings designed to ensure the safety of the visually impaired on streets and roads. Tactile roads are the most common way Mongolia is making Ulaanbaatar accessible, but more are needed, especially on the outskirts of the city.

Orkhon Province seems to be making significant progress in creating an accessible and inclusive environment lately. The province has installed accessible pedestrian signals or audio signals at several intersections. By just pressing a button, people with disabilities can get the traffic light changed and cross the road safely. This is common in developed countries such as the UK, Japan and the USA, and it’s commendable that Orkhon Province has started to use this system, setting a good example for other provinces and districts to follow.

A simple way to improve accessibility is changing the doorknob, according to experts. Apparently, it is better to have handles that need to be pressed down to open than the square and round-shaped doorknobs that need to be twisted to open a door. Experts explained that this is connected to the distribution of power, before reminding that door handles need to be reachable for people in wheelchairs. Changing door handles does not require sophisticated technology or equipment, only awareness and the will to act.

Italian museums, galleries and amusement parks offer discounts to people with disabilities. This is a very attractive service that contributes to intellectual investment. This practice can easily be adopted in Mongolia as well. This is another example of a humane social policy aimed to ensure the safety, comfortability and healthy living condition of everybody.

It’s clear that the country and communities cannot be made accessible overnight. It’ll take years for it to happen but actual effort is necessary. Ongoing projects need to be completed, developed further, and expanded. Regardless of the scope of the project, people need to implement them wholeheartedly for the sake of everyone in the community. Everyone can play their part by making big or small initiatives to make a voluntary contribution to an inclusive and accessible environment.

Dulguun Bayarsaikhan