“Accessibility is a right.” It is a basic right of any individual, irrespective of age, gender or disability, to access the infrastructure on his or her own. It is the duty and responsibility of any individual to assure accessibility from the individual’s side. But, in the context of Nepal, the attitude towards accessibility, even though it is improving, is still poor. Accessible infrastructure seems to be useful to mainly people with disabilities, but it is in fact useful for everyone. “In the context of Kathmandu where only 5 percent of the infrastructure is close to accessible”, people think that accessibility is important only for people with disabilities; however, we don’t consider the fact that anyone can have limited accessibility to infrastructures in their lifetime, either temporarily or permanently. For example, anyone can be in some kind of accident; women go through pregnancy in their life time, each and every one of us was children and eventually grow old.
Furthermore, there are different kinds of barriers that make it difficult or impossible to access the environment and or information, even for people without disabilities. These could be visible or invisible hindrances that most of us take for granted, like reaching the public transportation, commuting via public transportation, entering and navigating the workplace or any shopping mall, using the restroom. Hence, to make infrastructure accessible or easily useable, it is important to identify and remove these barriers, in case of existing infrastructure, and avoid these barriers in future infrastructure.
Whenever we see and hear the term ‘audit’ we visualize examination of financial records. The term ‘audit’ here, however, has nothing to do with finance. Accessibility audit is the review of how much infrastructure or information is accessible; the infrastructure being either physical or digital. Physical infrastructure includes public and private buildings, transportation lanes, parks and open spaces; Digital infrastructure includes websites, operating systems in computers or phones. The main propose of an accessibility audit is to identify any or every barrier that affects the access or the ease of access to the particular infrastructure for a wide range of possible users; and get recommendations or design solutions on how to improve accessibility, where necessary. “Improving accessibility contributes to:
- More independence
- Social Inclusion
- Increased quality of life
- Building resilience
- Increased safety and mobility
- Less pollution
- Cost savings
- Energy savings
- Increased ‘Social Capitals’
- Better health”
WHO defines barriers as “factors in a person’s environment that, through their absence or presence, limit functioning and create disability. These include aspects such as:
- A physical environment that is not accessible,
- Lack of relevant assistive technology (assistive, adaptive, and rehabilitative devices),
- Negative attitudes of people towards disability,
- Services, systems, and policies that are either nonexistent or that hinder the involvement of all people with a health condition in all areas of life.”
It is clear from the definition that these barriers are of different types, and one encounters more than a single barrier at a particular time. The barriers,particularly in Nepal, may be divisible into following categories: physical, communicational, socio-psychological and technological.
Physical barriers are the architectural or structural features in any natural or manmade environment that make it difficult or impossibleto access the environment.Generally, physical barriers are experienced by people who have physical disabilities.Examples of physical barriers include:
- Small width of door which is inaccessible for a person using wheelchairs.
- Electric switches which cannot be reached by person of short stature.
- Poor lighting in spaces is difficult for person with low visibility.
Communicational barriers are any issues that make it difficult to perceive the available information. Communication barriers are mostly experienced by people who have visual impairment (complete or partial), disabilities that affect hearing or speaking, and intellectual disabilities. Examples of communicational barriers include:
- Use of small font size in prints
- Absence of Braille letters on elevators indicating floor numbers or on doors indicating room numbers.
- Signage without proper color contrast.
- Absence of sign language interpreters
Socio-psychological barriers include the poor attitude of people toward a person with disability. Examples of Socio-psychological barriers include:
- Not accepting students with disability in school or college
- Denying services, benefits, or opportunities in workplace for qualified individuals with disabilities
- Mindset that people with disability are inferior
Technological barriers are mainly related with different tools and technology. Examples of technological barriers include:
- Websites with insufficient color contrast or no alternative text for non-text content.
- Phones without TTS (text to speech) service.
- Alarm system that doesn’t have both flashing lightsandaudible signals.
The accessibility audit done by us, a technical team of architects, mainlyfocuses on the physical and communicational barriers. Initially a quick visual assessment of infrastructure/environment to be audited is done. Architectural drawings are then collected if available. A draft sketch is drawn for unavailable infrastructures. As per the visual assessment and drawings, a checklist compromising of all the probable barriers, is prepared considering chain of movement of users. Following features are considered en-route to the infrastructure.
- Reaching the infrastructure
- Paths around the infrastructure
- Curb ramps and ramps
- Main entrance
- Inside the infrastructure (in case of buildings)
Horizontal Movement: Accessible routes
Vertical Movement: Stairs, elevators, ramps
Services: Health, Education, commercial, recreational etc.
Equipment control and use
- Sanitary Facilities
The checklist (questionnaire) is based upon the guidelines stated in ‘Accessible Physical Infrastructures and Communication Services Directive for persons with disabilities, 2069 BS (2012 AD)’ approved by the council of ministers in Nepal. Since the manual is not complete in itself, various other international standards applied by other countries are incorporated.
Once the checklist is finalized, a team to conduct accessibility audit is formed; the team consists of architects/engineers and user group with different disabilities. The audit group may consist of 4 or more people including surveyors and user group. Each one should be assigned to perform a specific job such as taking measurements, filling out the checklist and taking photos. User groups are allowed to access the infrastructure, the barriers they face are identified and the required measurements are taken accordingly. All other probable barriers for a wide range of probable users are also considered. Recommendations and comments from the user group and the authority are taken at the end of the audit. Design solutions based on them is prepared.
UNICEF ROSA, a case:
UNICEF- Regional Office of South Asia (ROSA), Lainchour approached NFDN (National Federation of the Disabled- Nepal) to conduct accessibility assessment of their premises and prepare design solutions accordingly. Square Unit has been technically assisting NFDN for the accessibility related projects, hence NFDN recommended Square Unit for ‘Accessibility Audit in UNICEF- ROSA.’ Proposal for the project was presented by Square Unit, and was agreed upon.
The main aim of the project was to provide inclusive environment for wide range of probable user group; hence UICEF- ROSA wanted to enhance accessibility of premises and allocate resources towards it. So, in the first phase of their three levels: main entrance, parking, passage from main entrance to buildings, at least one room of the building, toilet, cafeteria and conference hall were to be made accessible. This ensured minimum level of accessibility and would help progressively move towards higher levels.
After the drawings of the premises were received, preliminary site visit for visual assessment was done. Based on requirement of UNICEF ROSA, drawings and site visit, questionnaire was prepared for the accessibility audit of the premises. NFDN arranged a team of user group for the audit. The team consisted of three user group having physical disability (wheel chair user), low vision and hearing disability. Square unit made arrangement of technical team and helpers. Then with the coordination of concerned authority of the infrastructure, the premises and the buildings were audited. Recommendations and comments from user group was taken at the end of the audit.
Design recommendation was submitted and presented to UNICEF ROSA. A couple of design solution was provided to ensure the minimum level of accessibility, for the initial phase. The most feasible option was selected with the discussion among stake holders. Then, list of interventions to be made was finalized and detail design was done. Estimate and BOQ of the detail design was also provided. A construction company was given responsibility to do the intervention. The interventions were carried out and Square Unit examined if the construction was carried out as per the design.
The case of UNICEF: ROSA is noteworthy because of two main points. First, UNICEF: ROSA’s approach to NFDN to conduct accessibility assessment of their premises. Usually, the approach is reverse and it is very hard to obtain permission to conduct accessibility audit. The approach by UNICEF: ROSA is highly appreciated and it also opens door for other stakeholders/organizations. The second is the quick construction of interventions as per the design solutions provided. UNICEF: ROSA made minor feasible interventions as soon as they received design recommendations; and appointed a team for construction for major interventions once they received estimate and BOQ.
Poor attitude of people towards accessibility is the major challenge faced during accessibility audit. It is not just the socio-psychological barriers, as discussed earlier, the features of accessibility are taken as an extra financial burden. However, people don’t realize that it is costs less if they incorporate the features from the design phase, than if they incorporate the features later on. The fact that we have audited only built infrastructure, shows a correction making process after the mistake is made, when the mistake could have been avoided in the first place. If architectural drawings or plans are audited before the construction, then the probable accessibility barriers could be identified forehand.
People do not realize that accessible infrastructure opens door to more customers. For example, accessible hotels have a chance of conducting more seminars and functions; some basic accessibility requirements are even required to conduct international programs. Accessible sports facilities can cater the need of not just audience with disabilities but also the athletes with disabilities. So, the chance of having different games with a wider audience is possible. More the infrastructure is accessible, the better. Still, we are having a hard time getting permission from authorities to conduct accessibility audits. However, there are also some organizations who have realized the importance of having accessible infrastructure and are initiating accessibility of their infrastructure.
Another challenge is the limited role of architects and engineers in Nepal. Design and construction process isn’t very inclusive in our context. The role of consultant (architect/ engineer) is limited just to submission of drawings. The contractor or construction team involved does the construction based on their understanding and the output may not be as per the drawings. Coordination between consultant, client/stakeholder and contractor is required throughout the project. Proper supervision of the construction by consultant is the least requirement to ensure the construction is done as per the design.
The cost of construction has also been the issue in some cases. The best solution may be the expensive one, but people go for the less feasible solutions just to save some money. However, being accessible with difficulty is better than being not accessible at all. The fact that NFDN, in association with CBM, is not just advocating but also being involved in making some infrastructures accessible by financing the intervention has to be highly appreciated.
‘Accessibility Audit for Persons with disability in Public Building of Kathmandu Metropolitan’ was successfully completed in August 2016, in association with Independent Living Center (CIL)-Kathmandu for Women, Children and Social Welfare Ministry. All the probable barriers for wide range of probable users were identified and a questionnaire/checklist was prepared. An accessibility audit was then conducted with the coordination of architect and helpers. The audit conducted, included 200 public infrastructures including buildings, public parks, open spaces, roads & streets, pavements & pedestrian crossing, heritage sites and public libraries in Kathmandu Metropolitan; and identified the remedial actions necessary to make these buildings accessible for persons with disability, old age person, children & pregnant woman.
A progressive approach, however, was taken in ‘Access audit of public buildings in three different cities inside the Kathmandu valley’ by National Federation of Disabled- Nepal (NFDN) in partnership with CBM, in collaboration with Kathmandu Metropolitan City (KMC); successfully conducted in June 2018. A comprehensive questionnaire, prepared considering national and international codes, was finalized upon discussion among various user groups, DPO’s and stake holders. As mentioned in the methodology, a team of architects and user group with different disabilities was formed to conduct accessibility audit. This inclusive approach has been very much efficient to identify the practical barriers. The audit process itself has been able to make the stakeholders realize the barriers. Recommendations and comments from user group also added the user experience to the technical data collected by architect.
“Accessibility is not a feature, it’s a social trend.” – Antonio Santos
Lack of awareness about accessibility has been a major issue for accessible infrastructure or environment. Even the basic bylaws and standards for accessible infrastructure are not considered during the designing and construction processes. Very few people have added some accessible features into their infrastructure but most of them are not up to standard. On frequent changes of administration, barriers are placed such that accessible features can’t be used. We have seen placing of flower vase in such a way that the corridor is inaccessible by wheelchairs; parking being done such that the ramp can’t be accessed. If awareness is raised from grass roots level to the management and public sectors, the existing accessible features would be respected leading to more accessible infrastructure.
Information is the key to accessibility. People must be made aware about existing accessible facilities, so that a large number of user group can take its advantage. Some infrastructures have attempted to make their facilities more accessible, they must be encouraged and promoted so that they can be an example, a source of motivation, to others. The accessible features must be highlighted so that it comes to light to those who are in desperate need. In addition to that, information on how to make any infrastructure or environment accessible must also be given properly, so that more infrastructures can be accessible or barrier-free.
Advocacy about accessibility is being done by NFDN (National Federation of the Disabled- Nepal) through different interactive training programs and games. Initially, a technical training on accessibility and universal Design was conducted by Ar. Benjamin Dard, specialist in Universal Design, on November 2016. A resource pool consisting of the trainees of the program have been formed, and NFDN has been reproducing other such training programs throughout Nepal with the help of the resource pool. Professionals and students of architecture and engineering field go through the process of self-realization about the need of accessible infrastructure. They are made aware of the basic bylaws and standards such that any design or construction they come upon is accessible.
Accessible designs and recommendations are presented in the form of interactive graphics, 3D designs and models so that even the general public can easily understand them; they can easily perceive what is being trying to done and share their ideas and concerns.
Accessibility Audit is relatively a new approach in Nepal. In the aftermath of the devastating April 2015 Earthquake, we must follow the build back better concept. Existing facilities and infrastructures must conduct accessibility audits to identify the barriers and interventions should be made to overcome these barriers. All the new facilities and infrastructures constructed must at least follow the minimum standard of accessibility. Accessibility should be included in infrastructure design and construction should be done as per the design. The architects and engineers involved must be made aware about the bylaws and the minimum standards of accessibility so that the design itself is accessible and inclusive. Importance and advantages of an accessible physical environment must be explained properly. Awareness about accessibility and universal design must be raised from grassroots level.
Utcrist Raj Onta is a practicing architect affiliated with Nepal Engineering Council (NEC) and Society of Nepalese Architecture (SONA)who received his baccalaureate in Architecture from Kathmandu Engineering College, Tribhuvan University. As one of the Directors at Square Unit, Onta has been actively involved in accessibility related projects such as advocacy- training programs, webinar, seminar, and design of various accessible infrastructure. After being closely involved in the preparation of Checklist for Accessibility of Public Infrastructure, Onta has since assumed the role of one of the architects on the Accessibility Audit which is produced by NFDN in collaboration with CBM. He has been involved in several accessibility audit projects such as UNICEF: ROSA, Lainchaur and UN House, Pulchowk. Before being associated with Square Unit, Onta was an architect at CE Services Pvt. Ltd. for more than two years.
Utcrist Raj Onta finished his Bachelor’s degree in Architecture in 2014 from Kathmandu Engineering College. He is affiliated with the Nepal Engineering Council and Society of Nepalese Architecture. Before entering Square Unit, he previously worked at CE Services Pvd. Ltd. for three years.