Random pictures clicked on the streets of Kathmandu show how the ‘otherwise-abled’ (disabled) travel around town. Some use scooters, others use motorized chairs, some have adopted modified hand cracked wheel chairs and still others navigate on traditional wheel chairs. They risk their own survival to negotiate the crowded and untamed traffic of Kathmandu. A few blind or visually impaired individuals use cane sticks. Other visually impaired individuals negotiate traffic with the help of an accompanying companion. How they, quietly and unassumingly, negotiate through the traffic generated by the unruly microbuses, tempos, personal vehicles, taxis, trucks and buses, is an incredible sight.
Travelling through the streets and negotiating the congested and uncontrolled traffic of Kathmandu remains a challenge even for the ‘able bodied.’ Can we even imagine travelling in some form of a wheel chair and trying to navigate between two points during Kathmandu’s rush traffic hours? It is a difficult, dangerous and daring undertaking. However, just a few proactive steps can help reduce the difficulty and risks of this task.
The on-going expansion of roads at various locations in Kathmandu valley provides the perfect opportunity to enact measures to enhance access and make roads friendlier for the otherwise-abled community. Reconstruction is a good starting point. Eventually, Kathmandu and Nepal could conceivably be a destination that accommodates the needs of both local and international individuals with disabilities. This task is neither impossible nor impractical. A little planning during designing and construction of the road extension efforts will allow the otherwise-abled to move around relatively freely and safely.
Footpaths that are accessible to those with physical impairments can be easily built along these road expansion corridors. The footpaths should be at least 46 inches wide and free of obstructions. If widths are less than 60 inches, then we should provide 60 x 60 (inch) passing zones at 200 feet intervals. Properly sloped footpaths at points of elevation differences are also essential.
By making these conscious efforts, the hazardous road environment can be brought under control gradually. This concept of making pavements disabled-friendly has already been applied at some locations in Kathmandu. This shows how this task is easily achievable, with just a little will and effort.
The cost of including such access features during the planning and designing of road expansion and the construction phase, under the supervision of a qualified engineer from the department of roads, will at best be nominal. However, footpath construction based on unplanned and unsupervised road expansion will only further worsen matters and prove to be more dangerous for those with disabilities. When the demand for these access features rise in the future, concerned authorities will find the process more expensive and cumbersome.
Disabled-friendly features also need to be introduced in schools, colleges, medical facilities and other public and private spaces. The National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) recognized this and called for greater access in their press conference in July. The recent August 14 verdict of the Supreme Court has also recognized the rights of the otherwise-abled.
Understandably, the needs of the otherwise-abled community in Nepal in general and Kathmandu in particular are many. But making our roads safer for them by allowing footpaths to be useable could be a starting point. All it takes is a bit of sensitivity, consideration and vision.
The author is a California licensed civil engineer in San Diego