Do people really know what it means to be disabled? How do you define disability and what are your conceptions about it? I am sure what I am thinking you are thinking is exactly what you are thinking. To you, disability may basically mean been confined to a wheelchair or being blind.
I am confident to disappoint you that what you are thinking is right but there is more to it. You may be surprised to know that you are now a disabled person, have been or would be at some point in your lifetime.
Quoting the definition put forth by the Design Manual for a Barrier-Free Built Environment, “Disability is not a phenomenon but is a phase. Everyone at one point or the other passes through such phases. The elderly, ill, pregnant, obese, children, persons with fracture or with luggage could all be described as passing through a phase of disability”.
From this overview, it seems right to ask that: can disabled people in the Ghanaian built environment easily go about their activities? Can the elderly, the pregnant, children, people in wheelchairs, the blind etc. easily move around Kejetia or Makola market without difficulties? Can these group of people enter our public office buildings, supermarkets, malls, stadia, etc. to transact businesses and engage in service like you do?
The General Assembly of the United Nations proclaimed 1983-1992 the United Nations Decade of Disabled Persons in order to provide government and organisations a timeframe to be able to implement the recommendations in the World Programme of Action.
The World Programme of Action was a global strategy to enhance disability prevention, rehabilitation and equalization of opportunities, which pertains to full participation of persons with disabilities in social life and national development. In Ghana, the 1992 Constitution, and the Persons with Disability Act 2006, (Act 715) are some of the regulatory frameworks that seeks to give effect to the realisation of these goals. Ghana’s Persons with Disability Act stipulates that the owner or occupier of a place to which the public has access shall provide appropriate facilities that make the place accessible to and available for use by a PWD (Act 715, Sec.6).
It is worthy to know that, for disabled people, difficulties that others tolerate can become major obstacles, deterring them from participating in mainstream life. Though not deliberate, most of our infrastructures especially public buildings and spaces today, remain inaccessible and non-inclusive to many.
We can all attest to this. This is largely due to the lack of conscious efforts to implement the available regulations and lack of concerns for the disabled as professionals, when we design and deliver the built environment. It must be noted that, during disabled phases of life, each one has the right to live in dignity and participate in mainstream activities. Accessibility, therefore, cannot be an aspect of sympathy but is very much the right of every individual. Barrier-free design, therefore, is a professional obligation as well as a societal commitment of design professionals.
It is morally wrong that public buildings and spaces continue to be built to exclude or make life difficult for many people. We can all be physically disabled at some time in our lives.
Those who stay healthy and able-bodied all their lives are few. As far as the built environment is concerned, it is imperative that it should be barrier-free and improved to fulfil the needs of all people equally. From the definition of disability, the needs of the disabled overlap with the needs of the majority. As such, planning for the majority implies planning for people with varying abilities and disabilities.
Therefore, as someone who has a say in the procurement of our built environment, when you are able to perform your daily activities without impediments, pause for some moment and ask yourself: CAN THEY GO WHERE I GO?
By: Samuel Fiifi Hammond (PhD Candidate, School of Architecture and Built Environment, University of Newcastle, Australia. email@example.com).