Smart Cities – smartly titled, youth appealing and towards a modern Mauritius. The Smart Cities are often bargained by the Government as a promise of reviving the economical landscape and part of making the population dream of the second economic miracles. Nonetheless, with much disappointment, people living with disabilities are forgotten in speeches and actions are not present to give relief or incentives!
Attitudes must change
Often, the idea is that disabled issues are the concerns of the Ministry of Social Security or non-governmental organisations. Reality is otherwise – the Social Security has limited powers; for example it cannot interfere in matters of public infrastructure and infrastructural accessibility for people living with disabilities by providing ramps, etc. and NGOs cannot make laws for parliament and they do not have unlimited resources! Inclusion initiatives are still few and far between promises and actions. Attitudes must change and we must realise that people are disabled by birth, through mishaps or in the most natural way that will affect us all – through ageing!
Thus, disability concerns us all: from individuals to local governments and municipal councils, as well as the Ministry of Public Infrastructure, companies and other stakeholders such as bus companies to cite a few.
Tackling disability is not just a CSR initiative
Shilpi Kapoor is the co-founder of BarrierBreak, a Mumbai-based company that provides technologies to assist People With Disabilities (PWDs). 75% of its workforce consists of people with disabilities with various kinds of impairments – physical, visual, auditory, cognitive, mental health to cite a few. She says that inclusion does not begin or end with hiring 10-15 PWDs and making ramps or adding disabled-friendly washrooms for them. She further stresses that tackling disability is not just a CSR initiative that companies can pride themselves upon to look good. “Inclusion will happen only when it is a part of the company’s policies and hiring strategy and is not just included as an afterthought. It has to start from choosing an office premise that is accessible to providing the assistive technology to help them have equal access to perform their day-to-day jobs,” she says.
Charity begins at home. District and municipal councils should review their criteria for allocating building permits to businesses and public buildings to be accessible to the disabled. Moreover, with hawkers removed from the streets and footpaths, municipal councils should ensure that the footpaths become accessible to the disabled and that shopkeepers do not in their turn use public infrastructure as food and goods display!
Resources of district councils
Conversely, it is inexcusable to find district councils wasting their resources to provide transportation for the elderly and elderly organisations for outings when transportation is already free. Would it not have been better if municipal councils and district councils invested in converting bus-stops to bus-shelters accessible to all where people would have been protected from scorching sun or stormy weathers and having a bench for the elderly aching bodies while waiting for their already free public transportation?
Still on the subject of transportation, Ann Frye, international specialist on the transport needs of disabled and older people, in Disabled and Older Persons and Sustainable Urban Mobility, provides a good insight on working examples on how urban development can be sustainable and accessible for the disabled and elderly. She points out that the SBS Transit in Singapore have, in over half its fleet, low floor wheelchair accessible buses; targeting routes passing through disability centres will be extended. In lesser-developed countries such as Mexico, the infrastructure has changed through simple low-cost features like raised boarding platforms or ramps to provide accessibility to high-floor buses. In Bulgaria, the local authority has worked with the National Association of Blind People to install audible real-time information points at public transport and in Russia, 600 bus stops have been modified with features to help visually impaired people. The National Transport Corporation is availing of 100 semi-low floor buses gradually. Why not up-scale the project to have low-floor buses with appropriate equipment to be inclusive of people with travelling mobility?
Accessibility does not limit itself to transportation implications. It goes well beyond: Education, Employment and Social actions.
Is it still imaginable that a father, working as layman and running his household on meagre earnings, has to quit his job to accompany his brilliantly successful child, Ahnas Careem, 11 years and disabled, admitted to Royal College Port Louis, to school just because his child cannot have a means of transport to drive him to school and back? How to better structure the Training and Employment of Disabled Persons Board or the employment office to make them more functional? What of the Lovebridge project or Ministers or people heading NGOs most of the time involving in mediatised ‘glamorous’ support of disabled people who have achieved, when an awful lot are still struggling? The ‘Centre de Ressource’ for disabled is recent and lacking in terms of resources and infrastructure; should activists criticise the centre by asking to be assisted people or join hands to start somewhere to empower the centre?
From conception till realisation of the Smart Cities, State and Non-State actors should ensure that:
1.The employment office and the TEDPB are revamped and properly equipped to ensure that disabled are employed in the private businesses operating there; from labourers, attendants, and housekeepers to the topmost managerial positions.
2.CSR, Banks and Lovebridge encourage inclusion and empowerment of disabled as opposed to assistance not only in terms of money, but also in terms of, for example: support a disabled child or support the child of a disabled person, infrastructure, employment, etc. Or better still, Government should inject the funds to infrastructural projects for accessibility. This creates employment and boosts small food businesses and in the long term provides for tangible and lasting actions.
3.When speaking of Smart Cities, for every business, every government department, and for many families, more accessible devices, applications and services will benefit both internally and externally. This is not simply a matter of Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) but an economic and moral obligation to use technology to build an inclusive society.
Often, negative criticism, or reducing people with disabilities to assisted people weakens the effort of those struggling for a better living of the most vulnerable. Mauritius is signatory to conventions for the disabled; motivated people to join hands for the disabled are not lacking in the country and in a globalised village, resources and expertise are at arms’ reach. Let us not keep the term ‘inclusive society’ only a slogan. Let’s start somewhere; why not by making smart cities smartly accessible?