Except on the weekends and public holidays, Mir Arshedul Karim leaves his rented home in Mirpur for Dhaka University every morning, guided by his trusted white cane.
He is an assistant librarian at the DU and a person with a visual impairment.
His journey on the 10km route begins with a rickshaw ride. But the real challenge starts once he joins others waiting for buses at the bus stop.
“Buses show little interest in picking me up. Sometimes I have to throw myself into the crowd of passengers to get hold of handles of the bus doors,” said Arshedul.
Once on the bus, he is faced with a new hurdle: finding a seat in the speeding vehicle driven with hardly any care.
The law provides for designated seats in public transport for physically challenged persons but those are only in name in most cases.
“Often I find non-disabled people sitting in the seats designated for us and I am asked to find another seat,” he said.
Another big trouble is getting off the bus. Drivers stop vehicles in the middle of busy roads, showing complete disregard for passengers’ lives.
“One day I was about to meet an accident just after the bus dropped me in the middle of the road. A CNG-run three-wheeler ran over my feet,” said 43-year-old Arshedul, one of the 16 lakh people who have disabilities of different kinds in the country.
From homes to footpaths, public transports to educational institutions, shopping malls to office buildings, almost everywhere the mobility of Arshedul and other people with disabilities is obstructed.
Roads and footpaths are built and rebuilt. New buses are added to the fleet of private and state-run Bangladesh Road Transport Corporation quite frequently. New wagons are joining the railways. Eye-catching public and private buildings are emerging, changing the skylines of cities.
Yet, for Arshedul and his peers, there is nothing to rejoice. Very few infrastructures could be found in Dhaka and other cities that have been developed taking into account the issue of accessibility of these challenged persons.
In recent years, the city authorities in Dhaka have started making footpaths accessible to visually and physically challenged persons with tactile tracks and smooth surface.
But hawkers occupy many footpaths while poles have been installed to prevent bikers from plying the walkways.
“I have to remain very cautious. Sometimes, I bump into street stores. Motorcycles get on the footpath without caring about pedestrians,” said Abdul Matin, a person with visual disability, a history graduate from Jahangirnagar University.
“On several occasions, rickshaws pushed me down while I was walking,” he said.
“In most cases, footpaths end without ramps. Our accessibility has not been ensured although there is law for this,” said Ali Hossain, another person with a visual impairment, who has completed masters in political science from the Dhaka University.
He said persons with disabilities are highly neglected in this country.
“Not all the halls at our university have ramps, and not even the administrative building has it. Everything is designed and developed in a way that reminds me that I have some limitations.”
Take the case of railway. Stairs of compartments and platforms are made in a way that no wheelchair-user would be able to get in and out of the train without the help of others.
Even if anyone can manage to get in, they encounter more difficulties as there is no dedicated place for wheelchairs. Toilets are not easily accessible either.
Railway authorities have recently bought new compartments but getting on those is difficult for persons with physical disabilities, said Salma Mahbub, general secretary of the Bangladesh Society for the Change and Advocacy Nexus (B-SCAN).
Salma, herself a wheelchair user, said the BRTC bought 600 buses in recent years. None of these has any ramp.
Khandker Moinuddin Ahmed, another wheelchair user, said he visited Malaysia and commuted alone from one place to another by bus.
“In Malaysia, there are elevators in the buses to pick us. I could get in a bus alone. Even the footpaths are also friendly to persons with disabilities,” he said
In the face of difficulty and harassment in commuting, Moinuddin, an accountant at the Directorate of Accounts at Dhaka University, bought a motorbike in November 2016 and added two wheels on both sides of the bike so that he can drive it easily.
The government has framed the Disability Right & Protection Act 2013 to protect the rights of persons with disabilities and ensure their accessibility in common infrastructure, markets, hospitals, educational institutes, and other buildings.
The law, however, is not without loopholes. It makes mandatory for buses to dedicate 5 percent of total seats for persons with disabilities. But, it has not made putting facilities in place compulsory in vehicles to allow physically challenged, blind and persons with the disabilities to get in and get off easily.
The Dhaka Building Construction Rules 2008 has also been framed with provisions of accessibility issue of challenged people. But it is not complied with fully.
“We have seen many modern buildings since the formulation of the code. These are not accessible even though they have been built after the formulation of the rules,” said Salma of the B-SCAN.
Moinuddin, who lost his ability to move alone because of polio attack in his childhood, said he has to face a lot of troubles using toilets at home and in office.
“It appears that the society is always ignoring me, denying my presence. Otherwise, why can’t I enter shopping malls without any difficulty? We face barriers at every step,” he said.
Mohammad Sarower Hossen Khan, an assistant librarian of the central library of Dhaka University, who also has a visual impairment, said there would be no extra cost for making ramps at the end of footpaths.
He observed that there was carelessness at the policy level regarding problems of accessibility and mobility of the challenged persons, the elderly people, pregnant women and kids.
BRTC Technical Director Md Mahbubur Rahman said the state transport agency has got portable ramps for some recently purchased double-decker buses.
“But hydraulic ramps would be good. We will include the issue of hydraulic ramps in our future projects,” he said.
Sk Hamim Hassan, director for administration and finance and information officer of the National Disability Development Foundation (NDDF), said they have prepared an action plan for implementation of the law on rights of persons with disabilities till 2023.
The cabinet approved the plan earlier this year, he added.
For Arshedul, this is a good news.
But he and Moinuddin and Sarower had one thing in common: raising social awareness through continuous campaign about problems of persons with disabilities.
“This along with television and radio programmes is necessary apart from implementation of the law to sensitise the society to our issues,” said Arshedul.