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Long way to making buildings accessible

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As he “walks” into one of the banks in Lilongwe, Burton Chisale whispers something under his breath. He hails the designers of the building for making the entrance usable even to people with disabilities like him.

Chisale has a disability that affects both his legs and he cannot make any movement without using his hands, neither can he stand upright.

But as Chisale gets into the banking hall, he realises he had rushed to praise the designers of the facility for now Chisale faces one challenge: ‘standing’ on his knees, he can hardly see the teller on the other side of the counter and he realises communication would not be that easy.

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This is just one scenario among many facing persons with disabilities in the country despite calls by government through the line ministry to make all public and private buildings accessible to all.

“It’s really an embarrassment to us,” explains Chisale in an interview with this reporter. “Imagine all eyes on you as you struggle or even fail to make it into a building because there is no alternative way for persons with disabilities to access the building.”

But Chisale’s scenario at the bank reveals that making buildings accessible ought to go beyond just making the entrance usable to all. Desks and counters in every building have to be designed in a way that suits everyone; with or without disability.

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Malawi signed and ratified the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD) in 2007 and 2009, respectively to advance the global agenda on disability in the country.

In addition, the Disability Act of 2012 outlines provisions for the equalisation of opportunities for persons with disabilities through promotion and protection of their rights

Section 8 (d) of the Act mandates government to take appropriate measures to ensure “the attainment of a barrier-free environment that enables persons with disabilities to have access to public and private buildings and establishments and such other places in line with universal designs”.

Section 9 (2a and b) of the same Act sets fines of K100,000 and K1,000,000 for a natural person or a body of corporate, respectively, who contravenes sub-section 9 (1) of the Act which stipulates that “no person shall be denied access or admission to any premises or the provision of any service or amenity, on the basis of disability”.

During the launch of the Disability Awareness Month on November 3 this year in Lilongwe, the Ministry of Gender, Children, Disability and Social Welfare, Jean Kalirani, noted with great concern that despite the laid guidelines to have all buildings made accessible to everyone, the compliance rate is very minimal.

Kalirani sadly recalled how at one time a fellow senior party member with disability failed to attend a meeting at one of the hotels in Blantyre just because the member could not make it to the upper floor where the meeting was to be convened.

“Imagine that scenario, with no lift – and there was nothing we could do because we could not carry the senior member up the stairs to the meeting,” Kalirani explained.

The minister said her ministry gave all public and private sectors the guidelines of the required standards for the buildings and that during the Disability Awareness Month her ministry would inspect the buildings to check compliancy, starting with the Capital Hill.

But with or without the inspection, one known thing is that even Capital Hill is restrictive in nature in as far as accessibility is concerned.

This is so because the original planning of the buildings over four decades ago did not incorporate alternative ways for people with disabilities to fully access the buildings, according to Chief Architect in the Ministry of Transport and Public Works, Knight Munthali.

“About 10 years ago, a directive was made by the chief secretary of the time that we should make all our buildings accessible and that’s what we are doing with every building we are constructing,” Munthali says.

He adds: “But with the old buildings like the Capital Hill, it’s not possible to modify the design or install a lift to make it accessible due to the way the buildings were designed.”

The chief architect cites the new Lilongwe University of Agriculture and Natural Resources building as one such infrastructure that is designed for accessibility as demanded by the laid guidelines.

“We do not want learners with disabilities to be confined to the ground floors but they should be able to go anywhere within the building as they please,” Munthali says.

But while some planners of private and public buildings in the country are constructing access ramps alongside stairs, persons with disabilities, like Chisale, describe these ramps as “face-savers”.

“Next time you come to a ramp, I want you to take a close look at it and see if it is user-friendly,” Chisale challenges. “Most ramps are too steep for a person on a wheelchair to use without a helping hand and you tend to wonder for what use were these slopes put there.”

Malawi joins the world in commemorating the International Day of Persons with Disability (IDPD) on 3 December every year and the 2016’s theme was “Achieving all the 17 Sustainable Development Goals for the Future we Want”.

The statutes promoting the rights of persons with disabilities are there in black and white with proposed penalties for those who contravene them – and, perhaps, they are being contravened on daily basis. Until government, the public and all stakeholders seriously stand up to walk the talk; like the access ramps in Chisale’s view, the statutes and everything contained therein will but remain a scarecrow meant just to ‘save a face’.

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