“Being disabled should not mean being disqualified from having access to every aspect of life.” – Emma Thompson, British actress.
Every year, the International Day of Disabled Persons is celebrated on 3 December to promote the inclusion of such individuals in all spheres of life. As the world population hit 8 billion this November, more than a billion are living with some kind of disability. According to a recent survey, around 31 million people, or 15% of Pakistan’s total population, have some form of disability. Persons with Disabilities (often referred to as PWDs) face many challenges in the social strata of Pakistan. Whether it is our education system, sports, jobs or access to financial resources, PWDs are often marginalised and not given their due rights.
One of the major issues faced by people with disabilities is accessibility, especially those who require a wheelchair to access a building. A wheelchair ramp is an inclined plane installed in a building as an alternative to stairs, meant for disabled people, as well as parents with kids in strollers and shoppers with carts. Mostly the ramps are in concrete form, built during the construction of the building as part of the approved design. Some are portable: made of aluminum, and can be installed alongside or over the stairs.
Whether it is the Capital Development Authority (CDA) or the Rawalpindi Development Authority (RDA), their laws and regulations clearly say that all commercial, public, and apartment buildings must have a ramp of a certain size, and each floor should be accessible through the ramp in the case of non-provision of a lift. The regulations also call for a toilet to be provided for the disabled. Despite these regulations in place, the disability ramps are nonexistent at most banks in Islamabad. This constitutes a serious violation of the rights of PWDs.
In June 2021, the President of Pakistan approved a comprehensive policy designed by the State Bank of Pakistan called “Policy for Financial Inclusion of Persons with Disabilities (PWDs)” to enhance the financial inclusion of PWDs. Under the policy framework, banks will offer all sorts of infrastructural assistance to persons with special needs, including and foremost built-in wheelchair ramps. Additionally, passed by the National Assembly of Pakistan, the Islamabad Capital Territory (ICT) Rights of Persons with Disability Act 2020 also emphasises and strictly directs all government departments as well as private sector entities to provide ease of access and mobility for persons with disabilities.
Even though years have passed, a majority of banks in the federal capital territory are still failing to provide accessibility ramps for PWDs. Some banks have fulfilled the requirements but only half-heartedly. NOWPDP, a disability inclusion initiative based in Karachi, in one of their recent Twitter posts, pointed towards disability ramps being treated as merely a matter of formality. A wheelchair ramp in the picture shows the majority of commercial banks having a below-standard wheelchair ramp that is hurtful and disrespectful to disabled persons.
It is highly important that the standard dimensions for designing a disability ramp are followed for safety and accessibility. When an architectural consultant was asked about whether the ramps are part of the building design in the first place, the answer is rather familiar.
“Even though we include the handicap ramp clearly defined with the proper standards in the design (without which the design would not get approved) and authorities approve the design, however during the construction, it is completely overlooked – and the building is constructed without an accessibility ramp or with an unrealistic slope, just to checkmark its availability,” says Zamir ul Hassan, an architectural consultant based in Islamabad.
He further elaborates: “Accessibility is at the heart of architecture. Architects are well aware of the importance of inclusiveness for people with disabilities. Accessibility is by far on top of the consideration list for architects when designing spaces or buildings. We as designers strive to ensure that a building or space that we design is accessible to all users.”
In just G-11 Markaz of Islamabad, one of the many busy commercial hubs of the federal capital, the availability of wheelchair ramps is almost none. Among 20+ commercial bank branches in G-11 Markaz, only one (UBL) has a practical and user-friendly wheelchair ramp available. The majority are designed so badly that they are only used as entertainment for street kids rather than actual use by a wheelchair person. This is a matter of great concern for all stakeholders: the building control authority, the financial institutions as well as owners of the commercial buildings.
Apart from the infrastructure challenges, there is also a lack of awareness in society. A motorcycle parked right in front of a disability ramp shows that there is lack of sensitisation and awareness in the general population. All this creates a huge gap for facilitating PWDs in Pakistan. And that is, indeed, something for the authorities to reflect upon.