The right of access for people with disabilities

The right of access for people with disabilities

28th January 2009, Comments 0 comments

People with disabilities around the world face hassle or even danger due to a lack of legal protection or insufficient enforcement.The right to access public buildings depends as much on infrastructure as it does on laws.

Lata Umrania is totally blind, and has been since she was two years-old. Getting around her home city of Mumbai, India is often difficult:

I was waiting to cross a very busy road. People were passing in front of me, I was saying, ‘excuse me' but they weren't paying attention. I was waiting 15 minutes before I decided to cross the road myself. A truck was coming, so somebody just ran behind me, and he pulled me away.

Lata Umrania (Photo: Chhavi Sachdev)

Lata Umrania (Photo: Chhavi Sachdev)

Twice she has fallen off train platforms because there is no physical ledge to help guide her. Lata is denied the right to access public places safely because, as she says, there is no enforcement of the law in India.

Better access, but no legal force
Monique Wijnen is a Dutch journalist and advocate for disabled rights. Last August, a television audience granted her the CAPaward in the category of careers. She now serves as the Ambassadeur Onbeperkt NL.

Monique was born with shortened arms and legs. At her apartment in the Dutch city of Gouda, she has two helper dogs, a cat, and a specially fitted Mercedes van that she's able to drive. In her neighbourhood of public housing, there are assistants on call 24 hours a day who can help her.

Monique Wijnen (Photo: Dave McGuire)  But there are limitations for people with disabilities when living in a European city. Newer parts of town have accessible buildings, but in the older city centre, Monique has problems. Some shops are not designed to handle her electric wheelchair, and many restaurants have steps and entrances that take patience and often assistance for her to navigate. Monique Wijnen (Photo right: Monique Wijnen © Dave McGuire

If I really go shopping for example by myself, it's almost impossible without any help. Products are kept very high. A lot of things are possible, but you need to ask a lot. Although I have the right to access, by law I don't have the right yet.

Dutch law guarantees the right to access for people with disabilities for work and school - but not for service sector buildings, like shops and restaurants. Without a law to back her up, Monique has had to resort to her own arguments to win over store owners who are reluctant to provide her access.

Better laws mean better tools...

Anel Gonzalez lives in the US city of Chicago. Unlike Monique, Anel doesn't have access to subsidized public housing specifically designed for his handicap, or 24-hour assistants when he needs help. But Anel does have the support of the law.

Anel Gonzalez (Photo: Tony Arnold)  He lives one floor up in a six floor apartment building, and depends on an elevator for access to his home. But when the elevator is broken, Anel is left to his own devices. Sometimes he can't get to work for days, other times he would return home with groceries and find he couldn't get up the stairs. (Photo left: Anel Gonzalez © Tony Arnold)

Anel resorted on numerous occasions to calling the Fire Department for assistance. But that was humiliating. He decided to take the property's management company to court. He argued that it was a violation of the law that protects his right to accessible housing.

...but not societal change
In the end, the management company settled out of court and offered to improve the company's response when the elevator is broken, providing assistance for Anel to get up and down the stairs.

Using the law is nothing new for Anel. Fifteen years ago, he went to court with a landlord who refused to even show him an apartment - merely because of his disability. So for Anel, having the law means his rights are protected ... but that it's no guarantee of permanent change.

Dave McGuire
Radio Netherlands


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