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Access for All: Transport for the Disabled Poor
Inaccessible streets and transport systems in cities in developing countries can keep disabled people trapped in poverty. Above, a blind man tries to cross a street in Hyderabad, India. Photo via Robin King.

Inaccessible streets and transport systems in cities in developing countries can keep disabled people trapped in poverty. Above, a blind man tries to cross a street in Hyderabad, India. Photo via Robin King.

This is part of TheCityFix’s series, “Access for All,” about how we can use sustainable transportation development to ensure increased accessibility for poor city dwellers, particularly in developing countries.

Ten to 12 percent of the world’s population lives with a moderate to severe disability — that’s about 700 to 800 million people, or more than twice the population of the United States. Eighty percent of those people are in developing countries; and among those who are of working age, unemployment hovers around 80 to 90 percent.

It’s not surprising, then, that having a disability makes a person much more likely to live in extreme poverty.  Disabled individuals also face much greater challenges to escaping the poverty cycle.  While many developing countries report reductions in poverty, and in some cases, inequality, disabled people too often continue to be economically and socially excluded, unable to take advantage of economic growth and new opportunities like the rest of society.

So how can sustainable transport be used as a tool to improve conditions and access to markets, capital and public services for disabled individuals?

PROVIDING ACCESS FOR ALL

Unfortunately, the provision of safe, accessible and affordable sustainable transport for disabled people often gets little or no attention from transport planners in developing countries. But increasingly, experts are calling attention to this issue, emphasizing that it’s important to incorporate these concerns into any new plans: it’s much less expensive to provide “access for all” features in the original design of new infrastructure, as opposed to “retrofitting” the infrastructure later on.

Julie Babinard is one of these experts working to make the world’s transport infrastructure more inclusive. She is an environmental and social development specialist with the Transport Unit of the World Bank’s Energy, Transport, and Water Department. She coordinates their Transport for Social Responsibility Thematic Group, which works to develop guidance and good practices for optimizing the social and environmental benefits of the transport sector’s policies and investments.

In a recent presentation at a World Bank event, “Accessible Transport for All,” Julie highlighted the urgency of implementing accessible transport solutions and outlined some of the highest-priority changes that need to be made in policy and infrastructure development. A few days ago, I also had the opportunity to speak with Julie about her work.

Below, I outline highlights from her presentation and our conversation.

DISABILITY AS AN INTERACTION

Most people still think of a disability as a static condition. But really, a disability is better considered as an interaction between an individual and a non-inclusive society. A disability is only a disability when the environment or circumstances make it one. For instance, a person in a wheelchair might not be able to find work; this is not because of being in a wheelchair but because of environmental barriers like inaccessible buses, roads or staircases.  Similarly, a person with extreme near-sightedness might have a tough time finding a job, but it’s only because they don’t have access to corrective lenses.

The United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (PDF) addresses this issue, as well, loosely defining “disability” in its preamble as “an evolving concept” that results from “the interaction between persons with impairments and attitudinal and environmental barriers that hinders full and effective participation in society on an equal basis with others.”

ENVIRONMENTAL BARRIERS TO ACCESSIBILITY

Accessible footways are glaringly absent in many cities in developing countries, like Bangalore, India. Photo via Robin King.

Accessible footways are glaringly absent in many cities in developing countries, like Bangalore, India. Photo via Robin King.

Disabilities hinder people’s equal participation in society because of overwhelming environmental barriers, including inaccessible transport systems with poor infrastructure, vehicle design and information provision.

Accessible footways are often glaringly absent and sorely needed in cities in developing countries.  Walking is the main mode of transport in many low-income countries, so some of the biggest infrastructural barriers to accessibility are places where sidewalks, roads and road crossings are inaccessible or unsafe.  Simple,  low-cost improvements to pedestrian infrastructure have the potential to generate huge benefits for society.

GOOD LEGISLATION AND POOR ENFORCEMENT

Unfortunately, while many countries have good accessibility legislation, it is poorly enforced and rarely implemented. For instance, Indian legislation requires that trains and buses leave seats reserved for passengers with disabilities and that these passengers receive fare concessions, but such promising laws are rarely enforced.

Poor enforcement and implementation is, in part, a consequence of low resources. By definition, developing countries are resource-poor, and their governments often find it hard to allocate sufficient resources to accessible solutions when other, more organized and vocal interest groups are vying for scarce resources.  Similarly, while 87 countries have ratified the U.N. Convention on Rights of Persons with Disabilities — 52 have ratified the optional protocol — most are still far from abiding by its standards.

Understanding these constraints and the urgency of overcoming them, Julie put together a table showing a continuum of necessary interventions for countries to make their transport systems accessible for all.  They include adequate railings and ramps for footbridges; obstacle-free footways with ramps and tactile markings; extended lights at pedestrian crossings; and adequate signage. For public transit, they include reducing gaps between trains/buses and platforms, and ensuring that steps are low and have hand grasps. None of these involve huge investments; they do require sufficient political will:

Continuum of interventions that must be made to develop an inclusive transport system. Table by Julie Babinard, World Bank.

Continuum of interventions that must be made to develop an inclusive transport system. Table by Julie Babinard, World Bank.

While guiding cities toward implementing best practices for sustainable transport, it’s important to highlight the low-cost improvements that can generate disproportionate returns not only to the disabled community, but to society as a whole.

Julie also provided a table outlining the anticipated cost of typical interventions, along with their priority level:

Some of the lowest-cost interventions to develop an inclusive transport system are the highest priority. Table by Julie Babinard, World Bank.

Some of the lowest-cost interventions to develop an inclusive transport system are the highest priority. Table by Julie Babinard, World Bank.

CHALLENGES IN A NEW FIELD

Only recently have more researchers and policymakers begun focusing on the links between sustainable transport, accessibility and poverty reduction, so there is little data on improvements in usability in places that have developed more inclusive transport systems.  Julie says we likely will need to develop a new model to capture all of the benefits of inclusive sustainable transport investments.  For now, there is more data available for rural road assessments, since historically, most large poverty reduction efforts have been focused on rural areas. But tools like before/after sample surveys could potentially deepen our understanding of the real benefits to society of inclusive transportation systems.

In the meantime, we can be sure that accessible transport systems have the potential to free many disabled of the disabled poor from a cycle of poverty and social exclusion.

ACCESSIBILITY AROUND THE WORLD

Examples of best practice implementation around the developing world are rare, but give cause for optimism.

As TheCityFix highlighted a few months ago,  Janmarg in Ahmedabad, India includes tactile strips for visually impaired passengers  at the beginning of ramps, along with gates for people with disabilities to pass through. These improvements are encouraging but were not based on any national or local accessibility requirements or standards, rather, they were a result of consultation with the Blind People’s Association of India, which happens to be based in Ahmedabad.

According to recent work (PDF) by Julie and Peter Roberts, Transmilenio in Bogota, Colombia and similar BRT systems around the world serve as a source of inspiration by showing how “even when the vehicles are owned and wholly operated by private enterprise, it is possible to ensure that there are suitable provisions to accommodate disabled and elderly passengers.” Transmilenio also demonstrates the importance of accessibility in the street environment — not only transport itself  — in order to make the entire system accessible. It doesn’t matter if a person in a wheelchair can board a bus easily if they can’t make it to the station.

The World Bank-financed Cairo Airport Development Project and Morocco Urban Transport Sector DPL provide two unusual but encouraging examples of projects that explicitly included accessibility as a project outcome. As Julie highlights, perhaps the most important positive outcome of these projects was the deepening of local and national discourse about improving accessibility for disabled people.  Discussion and attention to the issue lends momentum to the movement, while reducing the social stigma attached to disabilities in many developing countries.

Now it is crucial that internationally recognized experts, including EMBARQ (the producer of this blog) and the World Bank, continue to emphasize the link between poverty reduction, accessibility and transportation while promoting best-practice interventions to make cities more accessible and inclusive.

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