Israeli’s energy and water resources minister Karine Elharrar, who uses a wheelchair, was denied access to the United Nations COP26 climate summit on Monday, 1 November. This was because the conference venue was inaccessible to persons using wheelchairs. The only options to reach the conference venue were to either walk for almost a kilometer, or to board shuttle buses which were not wheelchair-accessible. After two hours of waiting outside because the organisers refused her entry to the conference grounds in the vehicle in which she had arrived, she was eventually forced to return to her hotel, which was 80km away.
How could the organisers have allowed this to happen, and why were they so uncooperative? Furthermore, how did the organisers overlook such an important aspect at its event? This experience must have been very disappointing, frustrating, but not unfamiliar to Ms Elharrar, who simply wanted to meet with her counterparts and discuss the climate crisis. The Foreign Affairs Minister of Israel, Yair Lapid, weighed in with the following statement “It is impossible to take care of the future, the climate, and sustainability if we don’t first take care of people, accessibility and people with disabilities”. Eventually, a plan was put into motion which ensured that Ms Elharrar could participate in the summit from Tuesday, 2 November onwards.
This incident is just one of many examples which demonstrates the importance of physical access to buildings and public facilities. Without any thought, persons with disabilities are excluded from participation. Not out of malice, even worse, because it simply hasn’t occurred to people. By physical access or accessibility, we refer to access to buildings, public spaces (e. g. parks, sport fields, playgrounds, parking areas, etc.).
It also includes any other place a person might need to go for work, play, education, train, business and service. Physical access is important because it allows for equal and equitable access for people with disabilities. Although access to buildings and public spaces is vital, it is equality important that people with disabilities can make full use of such buildings, public spaces and facilities.
About five percent (5%) of Namibians, approximately 100,000 people, have some form of disability. Those disabilities may impact their ability to walk, climb stairs, hear, see or grasp objects. For that reason, new buildings need to have accessibility features in place. For example, when old buildings are restored, renovated or upgraded, the owners of such buildings need to keep accessibility in mind. Common accessibility features include, but are not limited to, ramps and lifts.
Lighting in buildings should be evenly lit, not too bright or too dark, especially for persons with visual impairments; signs must be in braille and in large print to let people with visual impairments know where they need to go; and reception counters and light switches should not be too high to accommodate persons using wheelchairs and people of short stature. With regards to wheelchairs, doors should be wide enough, not too heavy, and easily opened and closed; wide enough corridors; as well as accessible toilets and parking bays.
With the assistance of the National Disability Council of Namibia (NDCN), Namibia is in the process of developing a disability accessibility standard for all public buildings and infrastructure. The draft standard is currently with the Namibia Standards Institute. Once the standard is finalised, all new public buildings will be required by law to be accessible to people with various types of disabilities, and older public buildings will receive a grace period to make them accessible.
While accessibility is very important, it is not the only thing that needs to be changed. It is the negative attitudes, perceptions and prejudices of people towards people with disabilities that needs to change the most. Real change will be made when people’s attitudes towards disability changes.
It forms the basis of the Leave No One Behind (LNOB) principle, and means we will be able to truly build an equitable society.