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          Volume 11 |Issue 04| January 27, 2012 |


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A Roman Column

Pushed around Dhaka

Neeman Sobhan

I am presently in Dhaka for a few weeks, so as I re-ignite the engines of my fortnightly column, the initial topics will be based here, rather than in Rome.

A visiting niece, from Washington, has been the catalyst for my recent observations about this city's critical need for providing access in its public and residential buildings to a certain vulnerable section of its population: the physically challenged.

My bright and independent young niece, who lives and works in Washington D.C, scraped a week from her busy life to come to Dhaka for a family reunion; visit Cox's Bazar ; do some shopping for some fancy clothes to wear to the wedding of her Indian friend back in the U.S.; and generally, discover what young people do for fun in Dhaka.

Much of this would be doomed to remain in the realms of theory.

The day she arrived, a freak accident in the shower cabinet caused the glass door to shatter and cut her left foot and hand in a way that severed several tendons, necessitating surgery, and ending up with her being temporarily confined to a wheel chair, with her leg and arm in a cast.

When the gentle surgeon at Apollo hospital broke the news that she would not be travelling for the next three weeks, our adventures in the world of the physically challenged in Dhaka began.

It started from the moment we were released. The hospital, efficient and cooperative in most ways, however, did not have any wheel chairs that we could either rent or buy, so my niece rode the hospital's wheel chair only up to our car that would take her home to my Gulshan apartment. When we arrived at the steps of the portico of my apartment building, I, for the first time, considered the space between the car-park and the entrance to the lift from the point-of-view of someone whose physical movement is impaired. Thanks to some muscle-flexing volunteers, including her sturdy uncle, she was carried up in a chair to the lift and her room.

Later in the day, a cousin sent her father-in-law's wheel chair. My niece was immediately taken for a spin around the apartment and up and down the lift to move between my floor and the upper floor where she and her visiting family were housed.

Now, we set out to brave the outside world and plan some trips to other people's homes. The burning question was how we would wheel her into the lift at each premise, and out of my own apartment.

A circuitous route was found behind our lobby with a sloping ramp to the car park. This made it so much easier to push the wheel chair that I looked out for this feature in other apartment buildings. I was disappointed repeatedly. Most buildings only have steps to and from the landing where lifts are; no ramps. Only in one building were there both.

Soon, we had cobbled our own method at each place to get my niece into various homes, involving leaning on shoulders and jumping over some steps, or a muscular heaving up of entire wheel chair over a frightening cascade of stairs with rider in it into lifts. Now, we became a little more daring and started to plan ways to do some shopping, so she would have redeemed this wasted trip with, at least, some outfits for the wedding.

Initially, we had decided that if she could not go to shops to choose ready-to-wear ensembles, at the least, she could have some clothes tailored. But even for this, while the tailor could be brought home, the fabric and trimmings still had to be selected.

Pink City and Shoppers World were among some of the commercial centres that were frustratingly inaccessible to wheel chairs. Pink City has lifts at the Wonderland street side entrance, but unfortunately, also a forbidding flank of steps to reach those very lifts! Shopper's World is out of bounds for wheel chair bound shoppers.

Boshundhara Mall turned out to be the most accessible and handicap-friendly mall, and my niece ended up doing most of her shopping there. There were some individual boutiques in Gulshan also that we were able to venture into fairly easily, but after counting the zeros on the price tags both aunt and niece collapsed into the same wheel chair, and backed out from these fairly rapidly.

Now, at the end of my niece's trip, if I were to give a report, this is what I would say: Dhaka is a city that badly needs to rethink its attitude to the physically challenged. Of course, the horrific traffic democratically handicaps everyone's movement, but for those who have the additional problem of a physical condition, an injury or age related disability, this city is not user- friendly.

Of course, at the individual level, we encountered many considerate and cooperative guards, doormen, policemen and passersby in our journey through the obstacle course of Dhaka city, and I thank them; but at the general and public level, the problem of accessibility for the physically challenged is itself a huge challenge that needs to be addressed.

Future construction of apartment buildings, at least, need to be rethought with the physically challenged in mind, and present ones need to be revamped.

Apart from those with temporary or permanent injuries or handicaps, we must remember that in the last two decades, as the urban housing scene in Dhaka transformed most single unit houses and bungalows into high-rise apartments, the present dwellers and owners are in a vulnerable demographic group: the aged. We are all growing older, and a significant population will soon face age-related disabilities and health problems. It is in everyone's interest to persuade developers and architects to include simple features like the ramp to portico steps, as something as essential as fire escapes and other safety features.

We should take lessons from developed countries where both public and private spaces have been reinvented to accommodate the needs and rights of the physically limited. Office buildings, banks, restaurants, public toilets, airports, bus and train stations, beauty salons, cinemas, parks and recreational areas, educational institutions, libraries, shopping malls and supermarkets--- all areas of life, which are accessible to the physically able have also been made accessible and user-friendly to those who have a physical limitation but would like to lead normal, independent lives.

It is our social responsibility to ensure an enabling physical environment. And this need not be more costly or more difficult to provide than the simple addition of a sloping path parallel to a staircase; a rail along the wall of a long corridor or dividing a wide stair case; a ramp to a portico step; a raised or lowered toilet; a bench or a place to rest in a shopping mall or a road side.

I know I am only talking about those who have a physical disability like walking, and am not speaking of the visually challenged or the hearing impaired. And I am sure there are many other challenges and needs faced by other groups of the 'differently abled' and the aged. But the solution to any problem mostly requires only an awareness of those who are less fortunate; a willingness to make life a bit easier and smoother for those of who have more obstacles to face than we who are more fortunate.

The challenges of Dhaka can handicap even the able bodied. But for the physically challenged it is a doubly frustrating, unfriendly and indifferent city. It need not be so.


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