People with disabilities denied access to public places in Muscat city

Middle East, August 5 2011

Muscat, Oman:  “A country’s emphasis on disability access at public places is usually an accurate indicator of the progress the country has made, both economically and in terms of human development,” said Ahmed al Badi. The 41 year old disabled telephone operator at Al Nahda Hospital has witnessed the economic transformation of the sultanate from a fledgling to a bustling economy.

Now he is waiting on the human development aspect of that progress to reach people like him and the large number of disabled people he is trying to help. Ahmed has served on the board of the Oman Association for Disabled People for the past four years but he tells us that he has been working for the betterment of people with physical disabilities ever since he had a car accident.

“It is bad enough that we can’t use certain parts of our body, we don’t need life to be any more difficult for us.” Ahmed is talking about the lack of disability access facilities for people at public places in Muscat. “My friends and I wanted to meet for lunch to go to get pizza at this restaurant in Al Khoud. But when we reached there, I could not go into the restaurant because they had steps, but no ramps. And I really wanted pizza,” said Mahroon al Ghafri.

“This is just a trivial example of the kind of trouble I have to face everyday. It is really frustrating when you really have to go somewhere and you reach there and all they have are steps. For us that is no less difficult than scaling a mountain.” The 42 year old Oman Air employee also serves on the board at the Oman Association for Disabled People and has been in a wheelchair user.

Contrary to popular opinion, constructing ramps instead of steps is not the only solution to this problem that plagues the city. Suleiman al Jahdhami works at the Special Care Department at the Ministry of Social Development. He is aware of this problem and he talked about the measures taken by the ministry to tackle it. “Article 10 of the second chapter on disabled rights in the 63rd Royal Decree passed in 2008 makes it mandatory for all buildings, both government and private, to include facilities that make them accessible to people with disabilities.” He does admit that there is a problem with the implementation of this decree though.

“Although most government buildings have tried to implement these new regulations, there are a lot of older buildings in the city that are still not accessible to physically disabled people,” said Suleiman. Ahmed said the problem is far deeper. “When they were planning these buildings itself, they often failed to design them to be accessible to  wheelchair users, people with crutches and other disabilities.”

He depends on a motorised wheelchair to get around and he often encounters various problems with such buildings. “Not only are the ramps poorly constructed, but most buildings don’t have a purpose built handicapped stall in the public rest rooms.” Ahmed said that according to the regulations, a building is supposed to have a ramp with a relatively gentle slope so that it can be accessed by wheelchair users.

The ramps are also supposed to have railings to hold on to and the ramp surface should be of a material that isn’t too slippery. Door-frames are supposed to be wider than usual in order to accommodate a wheelchair and handicapped stalls in public rest must have special toilets with railings and be equipped with doors that open on the outside. “Otherwise when I enter the stall with my wheelchair, often there isn’t enough room to close a door that opens on the inside of the stall,” said Marhoon.

Also according to the regulations, parking lots must have strategically placed parking spaces for disabled people and each parking spot must be spaced in such a way so that wheelchair users can pass between parked cars. All electric switches are to be placed at a reasonable height to make them accessible to wheelchair users.

Ahmed feels that some of these regulations will benefit not only people with physical disabilities. “Most of these regulations just make more sense. Not only do disabled people need it, but pregnant women and children . It also makes better fire safety sense.” Suleiman said that steps are being taken by his ministry to tackle these issues.

“We have a body called the National Committee for the Care of the Disabled that inspects buildings to make sure they meet all the standards for disability access and we are working with the Muscat Municipality to make sure these regulations are implemented.” He, however, does admit that in case of a violation, the body does not have the authority to penalize the offending building. “We do it on an honor system because it is part of Omani culture to help less fortunate people,” he said.

Mahroon feels that Oman has come a long way in helping empower people with disabilities. The Royal Decree also stipulates that one per cent of each government agency has to be people with disabilities and for private firms with 50 or more employees the requirement is two per cent. Nasser al Mawali, personnel manager at Lulu Hypermarkets, said that his company tries to create more positions for people with disabilities.

“We are always looking for people to occupy positions like store supervisor or personnel relations manager.” But despite these strides forward, the basic infrastructure to enable disabled people to get to work is missing, said Mahroon. “I recognise the help from corporations in helping empower us, but how am I supposed to work and earn a living, if, as is often the case, the building where I work wasn’t even designed to accommodate people like me?”


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