Don't sideline access amid pandemic

19 Sep 2021

Straits Times, 19 Sep 2021, Don't sideline access amid pandemic
Whenever Mr Mohd Hussain Abdul Jabbar, 62, visited a mall in his teens, his friends had to carry him in his wheelchair up the stairs.

Back then, many shopping centres did not have lifts, not to mention ramps.

Today, Mr Hussain, a bookbinder, takes public transport from his home in Redhill to Orchard Road, where the malls have ramps, lifts and other barrier-free facilities.

More developers have also incorporated accessibility into building design. Still, users say there could be better awareness of different needs.

That was the sentiment of shoppers when The Sunday Times visited seven malls in Orchard Road and the heartland - 313@Somerset, Causeway Point, City Square Mall, Ngee Ann City, VivoCity, Waterway Point and White Sands - and spoke to those who are more in need of barrier-free features, such as senior citizens, parents pushing strollers and persons with disabilities.

In general, most find it relatively easy to move around malls, but said more can be done to improve navigation.

Older folk want more benches and spaces to rest on every floor. Some shoppers point out that lifts are often overcrowded - a problem for those who cannot use escalators, such as the wheelchair-bound or those pushing larger strollers.

Others feel that signs for restrooms and other common facilities can be larger and more visible.

For instance, Mr Tan Whee Boon, 56, who uses a wheelchair, says some signs are not visible from his lower vantage.

Older people and those with sight issues find it easier to rely on human assistance rather than signboards and electronic directories.

An inconvenience that has cropped up during the pandemic is the closure of certain entry and exit points and redirection of traffic to facilitate SafeEntry check-in. As a result, shoppers find familiar routes and shortcuts blocked. This can be especially challenging for those with mobility issues.

Mr Abhimanyau Pal, chief executive officer of SPD, which serves persons with disabilities, says: "Locating the single-access points for places which used to have multiple ones may be initially difficult for persons with vision loss or mobility challenges, such as wheelchair users, the elderly and pregnant.

"Persons with autism or those who need to adhere to a certain routine may find it difficult and frustrating to use a different entrance."

Mr Hussain, who plays wheelchair basketball, notes that the SafeEntry QR codes are sometimes placed too high for him to scan.

Mr Pal adds: "These issues can be resolved if accessible information is made available for persons with disabilities. Staff can also be trained and reminded to look out for and assist these people. Signage indicating access points should also be clear and displayed prominently."

The Building and Construction Authority's (BCA) Code on Accessibility in the Built Environment, first published in 1990 and reviewed periodically, provides guidelines for building barrier-free environments.

While persons with disabilities and organisations which support them note that building access and physical accessibility have improved over the years, the Disabled People's Association (DPA) urges more developers to go a step further and adopt the recommendations of BCA's Universal Design Guide.

Dr Marissa Medjeral-Mills, DPA's executive director, says: "Rather than offering alternative design options for persons with disabilities, Universal Design makes sure everything is designed to be inclusive. There is also the need to include the accessibility needs of people with psycho-social disabilities and other less visible disabilities.

"Accessibility should also be consistent and cover times of disruption such as during the Covid-19 pandemic."

Mr Pal notes that Universal Design principles create a beneficial environment for diverse groups of people.

Ramps, for example, aid wheelchair users, parents with prams, those who cannot take the stairs, people pushing trolleys and delivery persons on bicycles.

And while newer buildings have improved their accessibility greatly, Mr Hussain says the older ones and several offices still have common facilities such as restrooms in inconvenient locations, as well as narrow aisles and corridors that make moving around in a wheelchair difficult.

Developers tell The Sunday Times that creating inclusive environments makes good business sense in an ageing society, while Dr Medjeral-Mills of DPA points to the importance of accessible office spaces in encouraging the employment of persons with disabilities.

Universal Design principles, developers add, are being integrated into new malls as well as offices and residential complexes. They also consult focus groups representing different demographics during design and upgrading.

A spokesman for real estate developer CDL, which owns City Square Mall in Kitchener Road, says the mall's concierges and security officers are trained to help people with mobility needs.

Accessibility needs were also considered when planning for SafeEntry measures.

As for Lendlease, its four major malls - 313@Somerset, Jem, Parkway Parade and Paya Lebar Quarter (PLQ) - are accessible for everyone regardless of mobility, a spokesman says.

For instance, PLQ, which opened in 2019, has barrier-free access points, large sheltered drop-off areas and non-slip surfaces - as recommended by focus groups during the design phase.

Mr Richard Paine, the mall's managing director, says: "Place requirements are changing... which include taking into consideration the needs of those with a range of abilities."

Mr Chia Khong Shoong, group chief corporate officer of Frasers Property, says macro trends such as an ageing society will drive demand and influence the use of real estate in the near future.

The developer, which oversees 14 malls, launched an initiative called Inclusive Spaces in 2019 and this year.

The dialogue with persons with disabilities in 2019 uncovered areas needing improvement as well as different perspectives of how spaces were used, says Mr Chia.

Students from tertiary institutions worked with persons with disabilities to brainstorm solutions to their needs. As a result, that same year, Frasers Property created a communal space with barrier-free furniture at Northpoint City in Yishun, so that visitors with disabilities could interact or rest. The furniture made it easier for people in wheelchairs to roll up to tables.

This year, students from primary and secondary schools spoke to senior citizens and learnt, for example, that the elderly like spending time with younger people and would appreciate learning about technology from them.

Inclusive Spaces was an eye-opener for Mr Bryan Wong Liang Chern, 25, who acted as a mentor to the younger students.

The student at Singapore University of Technology and Design, who is pursuing a master's degree, says the initiative brought home the need to design for older users as well as how design should reflect people's wants and needs.

He says: "We tend to look down on seniors sometimes and think they need help for everything, but they can be quite independent. We think we need to design things to assist them, but the enjoyment factor is sometimes left out of the equation."

Retail and food and beverage tenants as well as public libraries in malls also have a part to play in making room for people with different needs.

Mr Hussain finds it difficult to go out for meals with his basketball teammates as not many restaurants or foodcourts can accommodate multiple wheelchairs at the same time.

"I wish there is more wheelchair-accessible seating. Some people are very nice and give up their seats to us, though," he says.

Working with tenants, says Frasers Property's Mr Chia, is the next step in making malls more inclusive and accessible.

"Our malls are often at the centre of a community and it's important that they are accessible," he adds.

"We also want to see how we can make our other properties in the residential, commercial, hospitality and logistics sectors more accessible too."