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S'pore's changing urban design an 'added barrier' for those with disabilities?

30 Nov 2020

Straits Times, 30 Nov 2020, S'pore's changing urban design an 'added barrier' for those with disabilities?
 
SINGAPORE - Paralympic medallist and world champion Theresa Goh has surmounted a good many challenges over the course of her two-decade swimming career.
 
But in the midst of Covid-19, the 33-year-old, born with spina bifida and paralysed from the waist down, found herself stymied by a seemingly modest foe: a single kerb step outside a shopping centre.
 
To facilitate pandemic management measures, the building had closed off all but one of its entrances, leaving Ms Goh unable to access her usual wheelchair-friendly ramp and door entry.
 
With building security unwilling to make an exception and open the other entrance for her, she had to resort to asking a stranger to assist her over the lone step.
 
"It's not on purpose; it's just that they don't think about these things," said Ms Goh.
 
Her experience reflects what other persons with disabilities, social service organisations, industry professionals and academics have highlighted as increasing difficulties with access for those who have mobility issues.
 
They point to barriers that were erected in response to a surge in the popularity of active mobility devices in recent years.
 
Common examples of such urban design modifications include barriers or bollards placed along walkways to deter reckless motorcyclists, cyclists and motorised personal mobility device riders.
 
But these end up hampering wheelchair access as well.
 
This issue of access has been compounded by the pandemic, as safe management measures put in place to restrict entry points into various areas and buildings sometimes inadvertently close off barrier-free routes for those with mobility challenges.
 
A Building and Construction Authority (BCA) spokesman said its Code on Accessibility, which lays out rules and guidelines for infrastructure planning and design, is as inclusive as possible.
 
The code was introduced in 1990 and undergoes periodic reviews, with the latest in January this year involving public feedback, including from the Disabled People's Association (DPA) and SPD.
 
The spokesman also said BCA would advise town councils to remove or modify barriers along paths or walkways in housing estates, whenever it receives public feedback on persons with disabilities being inconvenienced.
 
Trade-offs
Town councils and MPs whom The Straits Times spoke to said there was no single solution to meet all needs.
 
"Say you first create a barrier-free access ramp to make it convenient for those with disabilities," said East Coast GRC MP Cheryl Chan. "Then, unfortunately, to protect them from speeding cyclists and whatnot, you add something that ends up inconveniencing the very group you're trying to help."
 
Tanjong Pagar GRC MP Joan Pereira noted that Singapore is a densely populated city with a lot of shared spaces, resulting in trade-offs for every decision made on infrastructure and facilities.
 
Wheelchair users and disability advocates said they understood it was a balancing act for the authorities. Still, they observed that BCA guidelines - for example, that gaps between bollards and barriers should be at least 90cm and 120cm respectively - were not uniformly adhered to across Singapore.
 
DPA president Richard Kuppusamy said the visually impaired and those in bulkier electric wheelchairs could struggle to navigate these structures regardless.
 
Researchers at the intersection of urbanisation and sociology said such designs qualified as instances of "hostile" or "defensive" architecture.
 
While helping to ensure public safety - in Singapore's case, from the hazards posed by errant riders - they could also lead to the marginalisation of vulnerable groups like those with disabilities, and undermine ongoing efforts to better integrate them instead.
 
Said Assistant Professor Jeffrey Chan of the Singapore University of Technology and Design: "These designs do not belong to any thoughtful and conscientious society… (They) belong to a city characterised by fear and distrust."
 
Said Ms Chan, the MP: "Partly because of all this inconvenience of getting around... it has become an added barrier for persons with disabilities to come out and mingle around the community. There needs to be quite a comprehensive review of how we build facilities."
 
Empathy first
Specific to Covid-19 measures such as the closing off of most entrances in public buildings, Prof Chan said such measures create more obstacles for people with mobility issues, and might discourage them from leaving their homes. "This may not be good for their mental and physiological health," he stressed.
 
Mr Kuppusamy, a trained architect and wheelchair user himself, said buildings could better disseminate information to the public on changed access points.
 
He also urged BCA to "put its foot down" and enforce its Code on Accessibility on top of Covid-19 requirements and guidelines.
 
The key is to be empathetic to all users, as architects and urban planners try to juggle community needs with safety and security conditions, said Mr Rodeo Cruzado Cabillan, principal designer at the Singapore-headquartered infrastructure consultancy CPG.
 
"In today's pandemic crisis context, accomplishing this balance is all the more crucial, as there are communal challenges that many cities and users of public open spaces are facing," he added.
 
These sentiments were echoed by disability welfare groups, with SPD chief executive Abhimanyau Pal saying: "We hope to progress to a stage where new environments are built having all needs considered rather than as an afterthought."