Asia-Pacific, Built Environment, July 12 2019
SINGAPORE: Lunch with colleagues is a simple affair for many, a little highlight of each workday. But for people with disabilities, it can be an ordeal they have to pass up because of the lack of accessibility where colleagues may be gathering.
A group of 25 students from Singapore Polytechnic’s (SP) landscape and architecture department is working towards producing a map that gives an accessibility overview of the Central Business District (CBD) area, one of the busiest places in Singapore.
As part of their curriculum for universal design, an elective module for the diploma, students carried out research and collected data onsite to conceive the map that is set to be presented to the authorities later in the year in a bid to make real changes in the area. In Singapore, regulations govern accessibility into the design of buildings in Singapore, such as the Code of Accessibility under the Building and Construction Authority (BCA).
But people with disabilities still find it difficult to navigate their way from building to building, especially when temporary road and construction works come into play.
In April and May, the students spent six weeks mapping barrier-free routes in the CBD suitable for people with disabilities. The CBD hosted about 356,000 workers in 2013, according to reports.
Estimates indicate that people with disabilities make up about 0.55 per cent of the resident labour force in Singapore. Nearly all public sector buildings and infrastructure used by the public, such as MRT facilities, have accessibility features.
Despite the progress, Mr Richard Kuppusamy, president of the Disabled People’s Association (DPA), told TODAY that accessibility is still something that the community he represents has to consider when taking up a job or even getting one.
“The lack of accessibility makes you question whether you even want to go there in the first place,’’ said Mr Kuppusamy, who uses a wheelchair.
“And then again, it comes down to the basics. Getting in the front door is one thing but you know, it’s things like, is there an accessible toilet in the office building? People are a bit embarrassed to ask… And where do I go for lunch? You know, everyone else is going to a particular eatery down the road, can I join them?” he said.
On Wednesday (July 10), the DPA and BNP Paribas Securities Services — which is funding the project — along with the 25 SP students, conducted a mapping exercise to document features that people with disabilities may need to plan their route around in the Raffles Place area.
With the help of an app, participants logged the GPS location points, features and barriers to accessibility with photos, noting potential areas of concern to people with visual impairments, intellectual, physical or phycho-social disabilities, or who are deaf or autistic.
The Minister for Social and Family Development and Second Minister for National Development, Mr Desmond Lee, also attended and participated in the event’s mapping exercise. In his opening address, he noted that despite the efforts so far, there is “still a lot to be done”.
“It is not only the built environment that we need to keep working at, it is also how we work together on improvements.”
Mr Kuppusamy said that the event marked “a very important first step” to build a “coalition of the willing to admit what the problems are”.
“This was the first time we’ve really been able to get a business stakeholder to champion this with us, to be able to get a ministry, a government agency, a commitment from the minister to pull government agencies, the relevant government agencies… because it is only a cross agency work that is going to solve this… And to be able to get everyone to just say yes, we’re willing to come on board, we’re willing to learn and listen is huge.”
Ms Diana Senanayake, the chief executive officer of BNP Paribas Securities Services Southeast Asia, told TODAY that the company took on the initiative as it was an issue raised by their employees, saying that there is a “local need”.
In a speech at the event, Ms Senanayake said the firm’s own office faced accessibility issues too. She said it took visitors “more than an hour” to get to their office, mostly because of road works and the lack of indication of alternative routes to navigate the area.
AREAS WHERE IMPROVEMENT IS NEEDED
Students working on the project identified several areas where improvement is needed:
- More sheltered barrier free routes
- More controlled crossings to help those with visual impairment to get across the road safely
- Need for alternative barrier-free routes to be sign-posted for when usual routes are blocked due to ongoing works
Mr Kuppusamy said the concerns underlined the fact that there may be “one specific route which is accessible” for people with disabilities, while for everyone else, “you have the freedom to go anywhere”. It was an imbalance that needed changing, he said.
“So rather than people going, ‘I’m specifically making an accessible route’, we want everyone to be ‘everything is accessible’… there isn’t a need for me to tell you which way to go because you should be able to go where everyone else goes’,” he said.
“That’s I guess the gold standard of equality that we would like to see in the built environment. And that is how we’re going to get social inclusion.”
In response to queries from TODAY, the BCA’s group director (building plan and management) Clement Tseng said the Code on Accessibility is reviewed about once every five years.
A committee was formed in April 2017 to review the 2013 version of the code. It has looked at international standards, including those in high-density Asian nations such as Japan and Hong Kong, and sought public feedback here in late 2018.