Recently, I was travelling from Dhaka Sadarghat Terminal to Barishal by one of the three-storied vessels that are available on this route. Before the journey started, I was waiting on the deck and saw a young woman in a wheelchair being boarded on the vessel. At first, three people tried to lift the wheelchair along with her, and were unsuccessful. Then one of them lifted her and took her into his arms and entered the vessel. Anyone who was around could understand the young woman’s discomfiture in being lifted by a stranger but there was simply no other way! I couldn’t help but wonder how she would use the washroom during the nine-hour journey.
How many times have you seen a person with disability travelling by launch? Did you ever realise that in your old age, you might also have to face the same situation? Data from Bangladesh Inland Water Transport Authority (BIWTA) shows that in 2017-18, around 4.5 million journeys were undertaken by persons with disabilities (PWDs) through the Sadarghat-Barishal launch terminal. What have we done to make the journey easy for these 4.5 million people?
Everyone is likely to experience some form of disability or have a family member who experiences difficulties in functioning at some point in his or her life, particularly when they grow older. Despite this, disability inclusion has not been a priority in policy making. The concept of disability inclusion and mainstreaming is still evolving and is perhaps not adequate on its own to lead the path towards sustainable development. A large number of people remain unproductive due to lack of proper accessibility and inclusion in our society. Laws have been passed, a United Nations (UN) convention has been ratified, but these are not being implemented well or monitored as needed.
Article 9 of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities specifically focuses on the accessibility of PWDs to the physical environment, transportation, information and communications, including information and communications technologies and systems, and to other facilities and services open or provided to the public, both in urban and rural areas. As one of the signatories to the convention, the question for Bangladesh is, where does it stand in designing the products, the environment, programmes and services for the PWDs? There is no doubt that access to public transportation for these individuals in Bangladesh, particularly in Dhaka, is a great challenge. Though section 32 of the Rights and Protection of Persons with Disability Act, 2013, directs that 5 percent of seats in any public transport should be reserved for persons with disabilities, the reality is different. In most cases, bus, train or launch stations do not have necessary infrastructure and support systems in place for these individuals. The vehicular designs are such that most of the persons with disabilities, especially those who use wheelchair, cannot get into a vehicle. This inaccessibility also creates barriers to receiving education, healthcare services and of course employment, which again are a violation of their human rights.
Ensuring accessibility for persons with disabilities is often thought to be expensive and inconvenient. We tend to forget that if 9.1 percent of the population of a country are left behind because of inaccessibility, it hinders the overall progress of its economy. Lack of awareness as well as of interest moves us towards this kind of false assumption. The reality is, some accessibility accommodations are simple, some are complex, but all are very important. Increasing access means creating an environment that can be used by all people, including those who have disabilities. But when we talk about accessibility, people often assume that we mean making buildings or other spaces accessible to wheelchair-bound people and we don’t think beyond that point. Whereas, including signage, visual or auditory announcements, assistive services, slip-resistant paths and so on are also important to ensure accessibility for persons with disabilities.
In an overpopulated country like Bangladesh, taking action to ensure accessibility for these persons may seem like a luxury. But all people with disabilities have the equal right to access the physical environment, including buildings, roads, schools, medical facilities, workplaces, and other facilities and services that are generally open or provided to the public. These people also have the right to live independently and be included fully in their communities. They also have the right to the highest attainable standard of health, including rehabilitation and services specific to their disabilities. The government also has an obligation to raise awareness about the rights and dignity of people with disabilities and to combat stereotypes, prejudices, and harmful practices.
Moreover, taking measures for ensuring accessibility is not even expensive! For example, introducing an assistance service corner for helping the elderly or persons with disabilities for a smooth journey will not cost much and can be a source of income for a few people too. Introducing washroom facilities for persons with disabilities can be used by other people too. Making the launch terminals, gangways and pontoons slip-resistant and maintaining the slope measurement of universal design will also help pregnant women, elderly people and other individuals to have a smooth journey. Visual and auditory signage and announcements will lessen the hassle of other people’s journey too. All the necessary changes we can think of will not only ensure accessibility for persons with disabilities but also help other people in various ways. In a riverine country like Bangladesh, where journey by launch is supposed to be the most convenient, comfortable and accessible one, we are still failing to ensure the minimum facilities to make our public transport an inclusive one.
By becoming eligible for graduation from the list of Least Developed Countries (LDC), Bangladesh has taken its status to a new level. We are on the verge of attaining sustainable development goals and committed to leaving no one behind to ensure an inclusive and caring society. Persons with disabilities constitute one of the most marginalised groups in our country. It is important to create opportunities for all of them and mobilise them for their empowerment.
Moon Moon Hossain is a Policy Analyst at Advocacy for Social Change, BRAC.