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DOMESTIC ISSUES: Consumer Issues

Barrier-Free Environment



The increasing number of megacities in the world and the social issues thereof have drawn our attention to our urban areas. These nodal areas of any nation, focusing on people and activities in a single area bring problems from excessiveness and congestion.

Children, the disabled and the elderly are at a disadvantage in these sprawling, crowded spaces. They will find their life full of barriers wherever they go, be it in the home, the school, institutions or the roads. Their needs should be uppermost in the minds of city planners, architects, engineers and developers. Just a mere railing or button added to the building design can make a world of a difference to their life. 

They need secure living conditions, indoor and outdoors. By removing the barriers we are not doing them a special favour. It is not charity. Having access to equal opportunity is their birthright.


Involvement Of Children and Youth


The vulnerable groups such as those mentioned above are not duly consulted in drawing up building and land-space planning. It is important to hear their voice.  The decisions made today impact upon the quality to life that our cities offer to children, both now and in the future. They are a silent majority which represent half of the world’s population. They know better what they need from us. It is type of consultations with the vulnerables, that paved the way in countries like Japan, U.K. and Korea to develop facilities that are barrier-free for children, the disabled and the elderly.


Child-Friendly Approaches and Actions


Children, the disabled and the elderly expect us to adopt friendly approaches to planning and development. They expect us to provide greener spaces; space at schools, both in the interior and the exterior; safer roads and homes; safer playground; safe and friendly latrines, staircases, side-walks, balconies, etc. They are neither difficult nor too expensive to build into our plans if we are sincerely willing to do so.


Global Experience


Based on observations during my recent visits, with the help of a short video and a set of slides, many examples can be cited from Japan, U.K., Norway and Sweden.  Their planner-consciousness is high about the needs of these groups that even the lift door-opener button is placed on the wall at a level easily operated by a child or someone on a wheel chair, and not high on the wall as we see in Malaysia. Their staircase in large buildings are mostly protected and some have collapsible strap-seats that glide along the railing to carry the babies or the disabled.

The latrines have two hand-bars on either side of the toilet seat to facilitate easy sitting and getting up. Some latrines/toilet seats adjust to height as needed. Women’s lavatories have a special strap-seat next to the toilet seat to keep babies secured at close range while the mother uses the facility. Large button instead of big handles for flushing in toilets is more friendly to children and the disabled. In many places, the side-walks in public open places, such as the malls, have wide, embossed rubber carpets to indicate and warn the blind and other disabled persons that a few inches away is an elevation drop. Some department stores and large buildings have instruction-plaques and notices in Braille.

Sliding doors are more friendly to everyone including children, than the swinging or ‘opening’ doors. They will not open or shut on you, injuring you. What is important in a design is not its complexity but its safety of facility. It should be noted that children and the disabled need and use more space than adults and the able-bodied. At the airports there are railings right around the ticketing and passenger movement areas for people to use. All these and more are aimed at making the environment, both in and out of buildings, friendly and barrier-free to children and others, and help them reduce their dependence on others for mobility and action.


Abled In – Disabled Out


The above-mentioned are not the only barriers.  Barriers to physical access exist in all aspects of life: in transportation, communications, educational institutions, workplaces, residential systems, etc.  There are a few buildings in Kuala Lumpur where special facilities and devices have been fixed to make the buildings barrier-free for the disabled but, the moment they are out of that building, they are again disabled. 

Malaysia, too, should plan towards making its urban areas fully barrier-free environments for children and others.  Barrier-free living can be attained in two ways: through consciousness building among the planners, architects, engineers and property-builders; and through enforcement of guidelines and legislative measures.  The vision of a barrier-free environment has not yet captured the imagination of our local authorities here.  That is one reason why even the existing guidelines and legislative measures are poorly implemented.  Enforcement of these norms remains a serious issue.


Professional Understanding


Creating a barrier-free environment through access-improvement requires cooperation between professionals and decision makers at all levels from related but different areas.  Without these experience, expertise and interaction, there will be no progress.  Improvement of the awareness level of all professionals involved in city planning – local authorities, contractors, architects, engineers, developers – is a crucial step towards making urban areas barrier-free and child-friendly.  The key to success here is ‘adequate accessibility for all age groups’.


Article contributed by Dr. Asiah Abdul Rahim

Reproduced with permission from A National Workshop - The Urban Vision 2020 Initiative: Making urban areas Child-Friendly - 5th July 1997.

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