‘If you do not have universal access to a building, then you are excluding almost 30 per cent [of the people]’

Architect Joseph Kwan MH recently visited Dhaka. Muhammad Ibrahim IbneTowhid had the opportunity to learn about the concept of Universally Accessible Design (UAD) from the expert

What is universally accessible design? Why is it important?
Joseph-Kwan-MHThe main concept of Universally Accessible Design is to design infrastructures so that each item can be used by all individuals. I am an architect and the motto is that we design for the people. The prime concentration is with two groups of people, the disabled and the elderly. It is the use of an item by the masses. The main message here is inclusion. It is an inclusive design of buildings, products and environments that are inherently accessible to older people, people without disabilities, and people with disabilities, for the blind, deaf, specially-able, children and pregnant women. For instance in the room we are sitting, often the main door is good enough to pass a wheel chair however, the door for the washroom is narrow, which does not allow a wheel chair to pass smoothly. So, the designs should be as such so that all the people of any age, physical structure and ability can receive proper benefit.

Which parts of the world are yet to adopt this architectural design?
This is a new concept to the world. I come from Hong Kong and even there this concept has been sparsely utilised.For Bangladesh, it is a start. Canada is a good example, they are really doing great. Japan has advanced a lot with the concept. The country to embrace it completely would be Norway, a perfect example where universal accessibility is one of their national policies. By the year 2025, they opt to be completely universally accessible. It is a great commitment.
For Bangladesh, the concept is a start and it should also have a commitment towards the concept. The concept is very new to the world, coined just 30 years ago. I am working with the concept for over 20 years. Any country cannot just change or adapt with the concept all of a sudden. May be from five years now, or say ten years, things should be universal, but the important thing is that there should be a strong commitment. I would say all the parts of the world are yet to completely adapt with the concept. If one looks at the statistics of the percentage of elder people in a country, then one will find that the percentage is climbing higher and for many countries like China, it will soon be reaching fifty percent. At this point in time, universal accessibility is a pressing issue, and all the countries should acknowledge in implementing this concept.

In our country, while designing architecture of a building, a very important consideration is placed on the cost. In this regard, can UAD increase costs?
I would say that in most cases, there will be no additional costs at all. I would answer the question by rotating the question around. You see a service is for everyone, for instance a shopping mall is open for all. If you do not have a universal access, then you are excluding almost 30 percent of the customers. These are the disabled and elderly people, who are also or can be your customer. By embracing this concept and initiating it to your service, you are rather adding more value to your business. Similarly, as you implement with inclusion, you reach to all the audiences, so you are being more benefitted. Installing the concept to old structures might be a bit completed, but with the right ways, simple techniques, they can be handled with care. This is why I am here in Dhaka, to sit with the architects, planners and other infrastructure building stake holders in order to discuss and share ideas of the installation of the universal design. All the structures including planning of cities should be done keeping the universal concept in mind.

How can the government incorporate UAD in its building and infrastructure?
The government of a country serves to all the people. The services offered cannot exclude a part of the people. The universal access is for the masses. The installations are focused on the common spaces. The government looks after the common spaces, and here is what most of the work needs to be done. I call it one solution for the masses certainly with combined things. Moreover, the articles 2, 9 and 30 of the UN convention on the rights of person with disabilities clearly states that the proper rights should be ensured for the disabled; hence it is the duty of all governments. The universal accessibility does not call for need of costly installments but it can be insured with proper knowledge, different infrastructural techniques and national policies. The concept of the design is to increase self-esteem, live in respect and work with dignity. Drawing from the previous example I stated, if the door of the washroom is made bigger then there would be need of less bricks, resulting to less cost. The old structures can add small things like making the floor smooth, making paths pram friendly, adding portable stairs, and many more. There are many ways to design UAD products, which can be easily developed, studied and followed. My message to the government is that it should look forward to the concept with a commitment and add more people towards its services.