Buildings continue to marginalise seniors and children

Friday, 3 October 2014 04:28 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

On 1 October this year too we saw a lot of pomp and pageantry about children and elders as the world marked another international day for both these two significant sectors of society. But I soon realised with a heavy heart that there is, still, two significant segments of these very seniors and children for whom 1 October was another day of silent struggle and marginalisation as we continue to make Sri Lanka unfriendly to them!   Open your eyes The ‘Mahinda Chinthana’ states 13.5% of our population is over 65 years old. Sri Lanka has the fastest-ageing population in South Asia. With medical advances, people live longer. When children and pregnant mothers are taken, not less than 20% of our population comprising them – i.e. four million – are experiencing restrictions on their movements and balance when the inevitable accidents, illnesses, wear and tear on the body rob their abilities to see, walk, climb or even stand steadily to varying degrees. When one adds the youth affected by numerous debilitating medical conditions (such as arthritis, vertigo, hip and joint problems) and those convalescing after surgery and illnesses, this number is one in four in Sri Lanka. Sadly we overlook the marginalisation and safety hazard these seniors and children often then face and the silent battle they then fight daily when approaching and accessing buildings that are essential to use in normal day-to-day life. Sri Lanka as a developing country is focusing on a formidable and sustainable national economy. It is thus imperative for us to wake from this slumber and soon find ways to arrest the waste of potential and unwanted dependency of seniors and promote gainful opportunities for children – our future leaders – in mobilising these two assets.   A malady of national importance One’s mobility should never lead to any disadvantaged state caused by physical and architectural barriers along with negative attitudes. Everyday activities should not become a daunting task to be accomplished by such children and seniors. Why indeed is it crucial to think about the design of our buildings – both in the State and private sector – the public needs to use in normal day-to-day life? In such inevitable circumstances, the quality of life of these two important sectors and the productive contributions they could still make towards a formidable and sustainable national economy as equal partners depends very much on how safe and enabling are the buildings and facilities the public need to use – not in bits and pieces here and there, but in full. The ‘Mahinda Chinthana’ repeatedly stresses on making everyone meaningful equal partners in national development. But it’s evident that even such grave social and economic issues remain very low priority to our politicians, architects, constructors and businessmen as yet they are to realise that ‘accessibility for all’ is a national issue and designing for inclusion of everyone is a low-cost high priority investment to arrest colossal waste.   Tourism industry the worst affected Hoteliers must remember that the baby-boomer generation has begun to retire into its travel years. Invisible debilitating conditions – such as joint and balance problems, frozen shoulders and tennis elbows, vertigo and arthritis, etc. – are rapidly increasing as we witness fast-growing ‘ability restricted’ senior population of the world. They are an underserved but growing niche – certainly an overlooked growth market. Their high spending potential, still, remains untapped by Sri Lanka due to inadequate facilities not meeting accepted design standards to a meaningful degree. Safety under all conditions and inclusion of all customers is not negotiable. Nevertheless, even new and renovated hotels meant to cater to foreign tourists and boost our tourism industry and human rights image, in spite of ignoring design standards for accessibility and safety, are rather disgracefully, still, awarded even five and six star status.               Seniors often suffer the most On 17 October 2006, standards for designing public buildings for accessibility were gazetted and received unanimous approval of Parliament in 2007 March. Furthermore, in 2011 October the Supreme Court ordered that all parts of new and renovated buildings must comply with these standards and ‘Certificate of Conformity’ must not be issued for buildings with any building parts that fail to comply, emphasising that such violations, as they are of national importance, are a serious punishable offense. As the legislations gather cobwebs, it is a nightmare for most seniors as hardly any private sector hospitals – some aiming for international safety recognitions and awards – or four and five star hotels and international sports stadia have any accessible toilets to any meaningful degree. Seniors are the most prone to falls and breaks. Several leading orthopaedic surgeons lament that they thus have no provisions to rehabilitate amputees and convalescing prior to discharging them and as a result very many of suffer mentally unable to adjust life at home with their newly-imposed mobility restrictions. At a time that even India has brought laws to make availability of ATM keyboards in Braille mandatory, here almost all banks remain inept in terms of complying with the legislation in making these public places accessible and user-friendly to seniors and war victims.   The denied rights of children Degree of mobility should never be a disadvantage for any child. Even affluent schools and universities continue to ignore unanimous decisions of Parliament (2007) and orders by the Supreme Court (2011), depriving children of equal opportunity and the right to receive education, no sooner their physical mobility gets restricted – even for a short time and even on the eve of a crucial public examination – despite this being inevitable due to active lifestyles at these young ages. Private higher education institutes are given the green light to mushroom in all corners of the cities, some even on refurbished neglected old buildings, offering hardly any meaningful recreational facilities. They are no exceptions in shutting doors on children with restricted mobility, despite being affiliated to foreign universities. More than the classroom, library and playground deficiencies, it is the poor design of the essential toilets and wash facilities that marginalise even the smartest and intelligent children. For children, facilities for appropriate recreation are of immense value. Today we are certain to see on television numerous outdoor programs for children, but how many of such children would be marginalised and under house arrest like tears rolling down their cheeks watching other children on TV, being denied the equal opportunity to enjoy recreational facilities – even marginalised on 1 October by unlawful environments we build? What a tragedy, as such continuing social evils on children are sure to leave lifelong adverse mental and psychological effects on these future leaders of our nation!   Banish the four root causes (i) Even after eight years, we have failed to establish an overall mechanism for effective enforcement, implementation and proper evaluation and monitoring of accessibility laws and orders even by the apex court or prevent the issue of ‘certificate of conformity’ to such illegal buildings. On 17 June 2013, the Supreme Court instructed the Attorney General to devise a mechanism to ensure that the private sector also (which has a far greater number of public buildings) comply with design standards and laws in force. It is indeed a tragedy that even the AG remains inept in the face of instruction by the Supreme Court. (ii) The professionals in the construction industry and the building owners/tenants remain ignorant about the inevitable diversity in human ability. They also lack adequate practical knowledge and competence on designing for inclusion and seldom seek the advice and guidance of accessibility experts. (iii) Politicians and decision-makers still believe that the architects and engineers in the building construction industry – they alone – are competent enough to ‘break barriers and establish a society inclusive to all’.  But, reality proves that, in most cases, this thinking is a costly blunder. (iv) The need and the crucial role of an accessibility expert are yet underestimated and unrecognised in this country. Decision-makers hire experts to advise them, but yet not here on safety and inclusive cities and buildings. To make the built environments safer and more user-friendly for all for a better tomorrow is imperative for a fast-developing Sri Lanka. Complying with standards and design needs is an essential prerequisite here. It is a highly-specialised job of an accessibility professional requiring a good understanding of its intricacies. It is not one where standards and specifications can be read and easily applied in vital tasks.  Often error in such circumstances causes waste and added hazards to safety. It requires expert guidance and advice backed by specific practical experience and thorough working knowledge on this subject – a rare commodity indeed! For a ‘Suba Anagathyak’ Banishing the four root causes of this debacle is a sure winning way for Sri Lanka. There also must be a system independently to audit by such a professional with proven competence for compliance at built environments, not in bits and pieces but in full. This must soon be made mandatory at least at hotels, hospitals and places of higher education and it is now or never. (Dr. Ajith C.S. Perera – a former senior manager in industry specialising in the field of quality assurance, where complying with design standards are mandatory – is a Fellow of many reputed international bodies emerging from the University of Colombo. In 1992 a fallen wayside tree left young Perera instantaneously a paraplegic for life. By reason of this personal adversity, he has bounced back to still serve humanity – most importantly as a widely-experienced accessibility activist, advisor and auditor. His proven competence and long years of pioneering endeavours for the promotion and establishment of accessibility to the built environment enhancing social inclusion and safety, focusing seniors and children in particular, have been befittingly recognised even by reputed bodies overseas. His webpage for more information is

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