Inaccessible Qatar… where do we begin?
How often do you spot someone with special needs in public places? And how often are they able to move around independently? Apart from the token ramps at entrances, and Braille on elevator buttons, how many public spaces in Qatar are truly inclusive?
In recent weeks buildings were evacuated due to tremors. How would that have affected those with restricted mobility. Even an organisation as progressive as MADA is located on the upper floors of a high-rise building from which there are no ramp exits.
In a country that is developing at the rate that Qatar is, one would expect more consideration for accessibility. However, a canyon-shaped gap divides expectations and reality. The truth is that the mobility of people with special needs, particularly people with physical impairments, is overlooked during the urban planning process in Qatar. Most public infrastructure lacks any provision for basic accessibility features such as wheelchair ramps, handles, walkways, or even special elevators.
Shuaib Chalklen, UN Special Rapporteur on Disability, visited Qatar in March 2010 on a mission to examine and review the existing rights and facilities afforded to people with special needs in Qatar. His report, based on his observations and discussions with different government personnel, contained his recommendations to the government for things they could do in order to change the state of accessibility around the country.
Here’s an excerpt from his report: “It also became clear that much of the caring and development remain almost exclusively disability-specific as opposed to the mainstreaming of the development needs of persons with disabilities. There appears to be a distinct lack of mainstreaming of disability in Qatar and an indicator of this is that many of the Government buildings are not accessible. There was a clear lack of wheelchair access and accessible bathroom facilities. This is something that can be easily corrected. But the fact that this oversight is present also indicates that there are no groups of persons with disabilities, organised in a federation that can play a monitoring role from the perspective of civil society. It was also noticeable that there was a lack of coordination of disability-related policy and implementation.” You can read the rest of the report here.
Head of Psychological Evaluation Services at Shafallah Centre for Children with Special Needs, Dr. Hakam Abu Al-Khair feels the public accessibility system in Qatar is not cohesive enough. “There is no continuum of care for the underprivileged. For example, the population of people that uses public transportation in Qatar is a minority. Most people who use public transportation are able-bodied individuals who do not require the use of any special accessibility options.
“However, most people with special needs have a reliable support system in the form of family or friends and financial resources. They can afford primary care or private transportation. Contrast this with the case of an injured individual in a blue-collar job who needs to avail of primary care facilities, which he may not be able to afford. Even in the case of one-time injuries, he may get treated for those, but may not receive any further care even if his condition demands it. The situation is just as grave for people with special needs in Qatar – the right care for people who need it is not available.” Mowasalat, the provider of ground transport services in the country, said they had 87 city buses with special wheelchair access provisions (Lift & Ramp type) as well as three GMC Savanna handicapped vans with ramp and lifter facility used by the Call Centre and one GMC Savanna Ambulance with Karwa Clinic.
As Dr. Abu Al-Khair points out, accessibility is multi-dimensional. Some of the different types include social, cognitive, and access to services. It also does not need to be limited to people with disabilities as we can also determine how accessible a space is for all people in terms of mobility and safety.
A lack of awareness and understanding of different disabilities is possibly what prevents people from designing suitable public spaces or services that cater to the needs of these individuals.
Safety and accessibility
In light of recent unfortunate incidents, many building owners have taken to providing safety and accessibility features within their properties. However, they do not train people to use the safety equipment or features they provide. So a lack of awareness prevails beginning from the property owner down the chain to the ultimate consumer – the tenant.
“Testing and training are the only ways to learn how people might respond to an emergency situation or how accessible spaces actually are for people with disabilities. Many buildings like the Qatar National Convention Centre are quite accessible, however most people who do not need to avail of these facilities may not notice this,” says Dr. Al-Khair.
“The only way is to organise a surprise mock evacuation drill in public spaces – cinemas, restaurants, tall buildings, airports etc. This will help facility owners determine how accessible their spaces are and how they might be able to alter the existing features to enhance the accessibility features. This might be a very relevant exercise especially with Qatar’s plan of hosting millions of visitors for the upcoming Qatar 2022 FIFA Games.”
While physical spaces need to be made more accessible, MADA, a nonprofit Center for Assistive Technology set up by ictQatar, has taken the initiative to make the webscape more accessible for everyone with any kind of impairment – right from sensory to motor to physical. The centre, in association with partners such as Microsoft, Vodafone, and Qatar Airways, designs assistive technology in the form of special computers with keyboards as well as software to help people with different impairments to use technology. They also work closely with occupational therapists and other care providers in addition to organising workshops to train people to use such technology.
Senior Assistive Technology Specialist at MADA, Anirban Lahiri says, “What we do empowers people with special needs and others are encouraged to look into other aspects of accessibility. At MADA, we primarily have four segments of work: Assistive technology assessments & a resource centre , outreach activities, training and R&D.”
The organisation has two assessment centers – the main one in Al Nasr Tower B in West Bay and the other one at Education City, which is an offsite assessment centre. The office at Al Nasr Tower also serves as a resource centre as it is a hub of various technologies where people can walk in to learn more about MADA’s offerings. Training individuals and professionals such as schoolteachers, occupational therapists, and others who directly deal with individuals with special needs is another of their functions which they perform both onsite and offsite. Research and development helps them to provide the latest and the best technology to all those who require it.
Head of Communications at the Ministry of Urban Planning, Mohammed Salman Ali Al Sheeb said that the organisation in association with other government organisations in Qatar – Ashghal, Ministry of Interior’s Department of Transport, QRail and others – is currently following a plan to make Qatar a more accessible place for everyone by 2016. Since work is currently in progress, he wasn’t able to divulge the specific details of the plan.