How buildings, housing, roads and facilities are planned and built can obstruct or enable access, participation and inclusion of ALL members of society, not just persons with disabilities. Accessible physical environments increase safety, convenience and comfort for the average person, including children, aging senior citizens, pregnant women and persons with temporary illness or impairment.
However, for persons with disabilities, accessible, barrier-free and universally-designed environments are essential to our independence, social participation, quality of life, living with dignity, as well as living safely within our community.
Unfortunately, persons with disabilities often, if not always, experience multiple barriers navigating and being in physical environments, such as:
Accessibility in built environment is a lot more than making physical environments accessible or barrier-free to wheelchair-users, it also involves designing and building for people who are Blind and Visually Impaired, Deaf and Hard-of-hearing, persons with weak muscles or limited manual dexterity, persons with cognitive disabilities, persons with visual perception difficulties (depth and contrast) and individuals with sensory processing issues.
It is not enough to add disabled-friendly equipment or accessories. What is most important is that the physical environment is usable by everyone with ease, including elderly persons.
Built environment accessibility is especially important in residential homes and housing for persons with disabilities. Barrier-free housing environment is essential to enable persons with disabilities and others to live safely, independently and stress-free, which can significantly impact a person’s physical and mental health, employment status, and to some extent, status of poverty.
Unfortunately, for many persons with disabilities, their homes were not built to be accessible. Although modifying their existing home environment is essential, it is unattainable for many persons with disabilities and their families due to the high costs of redesigning and remodelling works. This is especially true for persons with disabilities or families with persons with disabilities in poverty.
Hence, it is crucial to design, build, and modify ALL built-environments, i.e., buildings, residential homes, roads and pavements, facilities, amenities and services, to be accessible and barrier-free. Whether it is designing for accessibility from the beginning or retrofitting and modifying existing built environment to make it more accessible, the long term benefits to the whole of society outweighs the cost of making such adjustments.
Persons with Disabilities (PWD) Act 2008 section 26(1) states that:
Persons with disabilities shall have the right to access to and use of, public facilities, amenities, services and buildings open or provided to the public on equal basis with persons without disabilities, but subject to the existence or emergence of such situations that may endanger the safety of persons with disabilities.
However, the PWD Act did not make the same provision for accessibility to housing and residential homes.
Uniform Building By-Laws (Amendment) 1991 (UBBL) 34A
In the Uniform Building By-Laws (Amendment) 1991 (UBBL) 34A, it is statutory for buildings to provide access to enable people with disabilities to get into, out of and within the buildings. Building owners and local authorities that did not comply with the UBBL can be fined. The UBBL 34A applies also to residential buildings except single family private houses.
However, there is still a lack of serious and committed enforcement of the UBBL 34A, the effect of which are seen and experienced by many of us, whether disabled or not, in our surrounding environment.
Basic requirements of accessible building design are detailed in the set of guidelines under Malaysian Standard Code of Practice on Access for Disabled Persons (MS), i.e.:
Housing developers, contractors, builders, managers, maintenance skilled workers, and residential committees need to understand and implement barrier-free design in residential homes for all persons. Accessible housing is not only essential and necessary for persons with disabilities, but also for every person who plans to live safely and comfortably in their homes until old age.
An accessible home built with universal design principles may include, but are not limited to:
*Note: Resources linked are in English and pdf or webpage format, unless stated otherwise.
Accessibility Audit Checklist (India) by Department of Empowerment of Persons with Disabilities, India
Accessible Home Features by The Universal Design Project
The 7 Principles of Universal Design (webpage) by National Disability Authority’s Centre for Excellence in Universal Design
From Where I Sit: Busting Five Myths of Universal Design by Brad McCannell
Beyond Accessibility To Universal Design by Whole Building Design Guide
Building for Everyone: A Universal Design Approach by Centre for Excellence in Universal Design, National Disability Authority, Ireland
Design Manual for a Barrier-Free Built Environment by UNNATI-Organisation for Development Education and Handicap International (HI)
Good Practices of Accessible Urban Development by United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs
Universal Design Guidelines for Homes in Ireland by Centre for Excellence in Universal Design, National Disability Authority, Ireland
Universal Design In Housing by The Center for Universal Design, North Carolina State University
Residential Rehabilitation, Remodeling and Universal Design by The Center for Universal Design, North Carolina State University
Panduan Ringkas Rekabentuk Sejagat (Brief Guidelines on Universal Design, as images of text in a webpage) by Majlis Perbandaran Seberang Perai
Inclusive Playground: Best Business Practice Circular & Guidance Toolkit by UNICEF Malaysia & Sime Darby Property
Advocacy films documenting the journey and process of designing the first inclusive playground in Malaysia is available via Inclusive Playgrounds: Child-friendly, disability-inclusive, and safe spaces for ALL children.
Standards for Disable-Friendly Housing – audio podcast of BFM radio interview with Fadilah Baharin, Department of Standards Malaysia
Importance of Access Audit in Malaysia by Peter Tan, disability activitst
Malaysian Perspective on Barrier Free and Universal Design (pdf of presentation slides) by Hazreena Hussein and Naziaty Mohd Yaacob
Bathroom Design Ideas by Naziaty Mohd Yaacob
No More Barriers: Promoting Universal Design in Singapore (Case Study). Published in Urban Solutions.
Accessibility for Seniors: Barrier-Free Society (Singapore)
Changing Places Toilets: Real Life Stories (UK) by The Changing Places Consortium
Built-Environment Accessibility: The Irish Experience by National Disability Authority, Ireland