A Tale Of Disabled Cities

A Tale Of Disabled Cities
Ever wondered why we don’t see people with wheelchairs often in bank queues? Or people walking with the aid of crutches in shopping malls?

Data suggests that around 31 million people in Pakistan are suffering from some kind of disability, so the small number of people in wheelchairs or using clutches seen on streets is certainly not the reason. However, what makes it a rare sight is the design of our cities which is quite exclusive and has made it nearly impossible for many to participate in activities and opportunities a city has to offer.

Social interactions significantly impact the growth of individuals, and cities are supposed to make it happen effectively. Marketers like Porter Gale claim that a person’s network is his net worth, and in terms of finding opportunities to excel in careers. The idea extended by Porter is, however, based on the theory of life chances by Max Weber, who happened to argue that the stepping stone for one’s probability of doing well in life is based on the richness of one’s social life. And, to establish effective social connections, the spaces must be designed to offer a mixed-use, and eventually a high degree of social interaction, as Jane Jacobs argued. The critique extended by Jane Jacobs in the 1960s regarding American cities is no less relevant to the cities of Pakistan.

The cities in Pakistan present a somber picture. Basic accessibility is a problem for many, let alone a city, to be moulded the way citizens intend to use it. From roads to buildings, nothing can classify as a friendly space for all. The roads are only for cars, and in view of the starting salaries and prices of cars, it can be easily ascertained that only mid-career or retired officials or those with affluence of money can drive around on asphalt roads. Rest of the population, which includes youth and labour force in a high percentage, is either using two-wheelers or mass transit systems if any are available. Ultimately resulting in a lower pedestrian life activity and denting the city's vibrancy.

Our cities are not designed to support urban diversity, let alone offer a space that could amplify social interactions and chances of social mobility. In such a physical environment, the disadvantaged intersections of society are the ones most vulnerable. Among these, life of the disabled in cities designed for ‘ables’ is nothing less than a persistent agony. The structural formation of the cities has made it quite hard for the disabled to access quality education and land decent jobs, and it has resulted in them being dependent and sub-optimal participants in the economy.

The inability to move without the support of another human makes one highly dependent, implicitly forcing to take decisions that limit the already scarce opportunities. Structural discrimination, as Kimberlé Crenshaw puts it, relegates the discriminated to ignominy. The accumulated disadvantage for a few in terms of urban design hampers social networking and thus makes it nearly invisible in the eyes of the policy-makers. Though Article 28 of the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (Nations) suggests that the disabled individuals have a right to enjoy the same standard of living as others and also to have social protection, the design of the cities doesn’t seem to ally.

Anyone using a wheelchair cannot even move for daily commutes without the aid of a vehicle, owing to endless roads and huge distances. Pedestrian crossings are missing in most cases. Overhead bridges are not feasible. The public transport system has a dedicated space, but due to overcrowding in peak hours it is not useable. But, even before that, a person with a physical disability has to depend on others to reach a mass transit station. Further, ride-hailing services are expensive and parking spots for cars are quite far away from entrances, making the physically challenged people avoid the process as a whole.

Public spaces such as markets either do not have footpaths and if any, they are used as parking spots for motorcycles. A few available ramps are either too steep or are covered with shiny, slippery tiles, which might be good to look at but futile in essence. Toilets in public spaces are not designed to facilitate them. Mechanically assisted access in the multi-story buildings is also insufficient.

It is a problem buried deep down in the priority list of policy-makers and administrators. The reason for it is a highly centralised formation of the state structures. It is a country for the elites and by the elites, and so are the policies. The flyovers are remodelled every now and then for the meagre six percent of the car-owning population. The focus of the government is to build signal-free corridors and elevated expressways. But, to make spaces that cater to every segment of society is never a priority.

It is because an unadulterated decentralized democratic setup has remained a dream since Pakistan's inception. The solution lies in decentralization so that the rights of each citizen can be ensured, and the prerogative of citizens to decide how they intend to use spaces could be left to them. As Jane Jacobs said, "Cities have the capability of providing something for everybody, only because, and only when, they are created for everybody.”

This loop would be complete if citizens help in materializing the idea of cities being inclusive and vibrant spaces for all.

The writer is an M.Phil student in Sociology at the University of Punjab.