‘I love cities, but they don’t all love me back,’ advocate for disabled says before Habitat III

Bridging the GAP | The New Urban Agenda fails to mention ‘universal design’ or ‘reasonable accommodations’, two linchpin concepts in legislation to protect those with disabilities.


This story is part of an occasional series on the General Assembly of Partners (GAP), the main vehicle for civil society to organize and advocate ahead of Habitat III, the U. N. urbanization summit in October in Quito. The GAP represents a wide range of interests, which have coalesced into 16 constituent groups. Citiscope is profiling these groups about their preparations on the road to Quito with a focus on why sustainable urban development matters to their constituents.

When Brazil’s financial crisis forced budget cuts to the Paralympic Games, which took place last month, the move seemed like a slap in the face for the global community advocating for disability rights after the media attention lavished on the able-bodied Olympic Games in August.

That sense of second-class citizenship is an everyday experience for those with disabilities who live in cities, and activists are seizing on the opportunity of this month’s Habitat III summit to press their case for more universally accessible urban areas.

“I often feel as though I’m a burden, nuisance or bother to my fellow planners and architects,” explained Victor Pineda, an urban planner and a founder of the Disability Inclusive and Accessible Urban Development Network. He was diagnosed with spinal muscular atrophy as a child and today uses an eletricic wheelchair, but he has gone on to a successful career as a scholar and advocate. He is currently a research fellow at the University of California at Berkeley, where he teaches urban planning, and he co-chairs the GAP constituent group for disabled persons.

“I feel violence and danger when crossing a busy street without adequate signs. I feel rejected when a public bus drives by and denies me a chance for boarding. Or when a public building or sidewalk fails to consider the diversity of all human bodies, of my body,” he said at Habitat III hearings held with civil society in June. “Where is the justice in the places we are building? Where is my ‘right to the city’?”

“A majority of cities in the world have no facilities to accommodate people with disabilities. It’s an alarming issue.”

Mohammed Loutfy
Executive Director, Arab Forum for the Rights of People with Disabilities

According to Pineda, roughly 1 billion people have some kind of disability. But not all disabilities are created equal, and the wide range of possible hindrances means there are few one-size-fits-all solutions.

[See: 4 ideas from 4 continents: Helping the blind navigate cities]

Mohammed Loutfy, for example, has no problem crossing a street — he can walk just fine — but making sure it’s safe to cross is trickier for him, because he’s blind. “I feel more confident to cross streets when audio pedestrian signs are installed,” he explained. Loutfy is the executive director of the Arab Forum for the Rights of People with Disabilities and a co-chair of the GAP group.

His daily routine in New York City is like an obstacle course, he says. He must navigate around street vendors, trash cans, trees and bike racks. Sharp edges on signs are especially disconcerting. “I could injure myself,” he warns, and softening those edges is just one example of something that a city could do to make itself more disabled-friendly.

And the city’s hustle and bustle does him few favors. “New Yorkers are in a hurry,” he laments. He says they don’t always help him despite the obvious sign — he carries a white cane, standard issue for the visually impaired.

Loutfy, however, considers himself independent in a developed-world city like New York. He thinks that people with intellectual disabilities have the most difficult circumstances, because few countries’ standards for accessible design take into account what he calls the “simplification of knowledge” necessary for those without the mental cognition to interpret standard signage.

Deaf people in the developing world also are at extra risk. Sign language is not as commonly understood in poor countries, and with lower literacy rates, relying on signage alone is not always adequate.

“A majority of cities in the world have no facilities to accommodate people with disabilities,” Loutfy says. “It’s an alarming issue.”

‘Unique experiences’

But disabled activists have some legal muscle at their disposal with the U. N. Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, which was ratified by member states and came into force in 2008.

As of this year, there are 167 parties to the treaty, including the European Union. The U. S. Senate, however, did not ratify the treaty, although a piece of U. S. legislation, the Americans with Disabilities Act, is considered the inspiration for the convention.

As a result of the treaty, countries such as Austria, Brazil, Japan and the United Kingdom passed new national legislation to strengthen the rights of the disabled.

[See: Canada has emerged as one of Habitat III’s strongest advocates for vulnerable groups]

Between the convention and the mention of disabled people in the U. N.’s Sustainable Development Goal on cities, Pineda told delegates in June, “Member states now have a responsibility to ensure that as you’re negotiating for Habitat III, that you include language about universal design, language about reasonable accommodations, and language that specifies the unique experiences of disability and how the urban environment can play a role in improving opportunities.”

The final draft of the New Urban Agenda was agreed in early September. The text mentions “persons with disabilities” 12 times.

Paragraph 36 discusses this community’s needs: “We commit to promote appropriate measures in cities and human settlements that facilitate access for persons with disabilities, on an equal basis with others, to the physical environment of cities, in particular to public spaces, public transport, housing, education and health facilities, to public information and communication, 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.”

However, the document does not mention “universal design” or “reasonable accommodations”, two linchpin concepts in legislation to protect the disabled, nor the convention itself.

[See: Can we actually agree on indicators to measure urban development?]

Nevertheless, the convention’s secretariat is pressing on, with plans for a forum, “Disability Inclusion and Accessible Urban Development”, on 16 October, the eve of Habitat III. The forum will build on a June forum on the same topic and a position paper that the secretariat prepared for the New Urban Agenda, “Accessibility and Disability Inclusion in Urban Development.”

These public events provide an opportunity to share best practices, which Loutfy said can be found in cities such as San Francisco, Toronto and Vancouver, as well as to insist that accessibility be universal. Historic preservationists, for example, sometimes push back against additions to old buildings that are not contextual.

[See: Developing countries face a catastrophic lack of urban planning capacity]

Calling such arguments “not valid” and insisting there is “no excuse” not to undertake such action, Loutfy argues forcefully: “Accessibility has to be considered for modern and old buildings. You can still do something to pursue the rights of the disabled without making buildings lose historic value.”

At the end of the day, disabled activists insist they are not trying to bend cities to their will but rather working to level the playing field. “I love cities. Whether big or small. Young or old. Clean cities, dirty cities. I love them all,” Pineda said. “But the problem is, they don’t all love me back.”

Note: This story has been updated.

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