RECENTLY, I had the pleasure of participating in several workshops involving people with disabilities organised by Beautiful Gate Foundation. The speakers took the trouble to paint a world of constant struggle with many things that able-bodied persons take for granted, be it from traversing steps to visiting a public restroom.
The challenges aren’t limited to those with mobility impairments but also the deaf and blind. The source of these challenges can be pinpointed to the local council, which isn’t doing enough to enforce the law to ensure that all buildings are accessible. Mainly, these are public buildings like schools and government department buildings. “Try going into a police station and see if you can use their toilets,” said a wheelchair-bound participant at the workshop.
There is a claim that federal government buildings are exempt from local council approval. But how true is this?
Passing the buck?
Section 34A of the Uniform Building Bylaw (UBBL) has a clause that states:
“Any building or part thereof to which this by-law applies shall be approved with access to enable disabled persons to get into, out of and within the building for which access is provided wholly or mainly for the inspection, maintenance or repair of the building, its services or fixed plant or machinery; and be designed with facilities for use by disabled persons.”
Since all buildings cannot be erected without the approval of the local council, and since the local council must ensure that the UBBL requirements are applied to all building plan submissions, it isn’t too difficult to understand why the disabled community is laying the blame on the council’s doorstep when buildings are not accessible to them.
In defence, council officers say that while commercial and private buildings are made to comply with the accessibility requirement, projects that are done by government agencies are exempt from going through the council for approval. Thus, the same accessibility requirements could not be imposed.
This was something that a Petaling Jaya City Council (MBPJ) building department officer verbally told me, too, when I objected to the demolition and rebuilding of a police staff quarters in Damansara New Village because no were plans submitted. There did not appear to be any legal provision that allowed the demolition instruction to begin with. Was this presumably because, as police staff quarters, these buildings were federal buildings and thus beyond local council authority?
What the law says
The excuse that government projects can bypass the local council is hogwash.
There is a 2007 circular from the Federal Town and Country Planning Department entitled “Penyelarasan Prosedur Bagi Pelaksanaan Projek Oleh Agensi Dan Jabatan Kerajaan” that summarises this point nicely:
“Prosedur dan perundangan semasa di bawah subseksyen 19(1) Akta Perancangan Bandar dan Desa, 1976 (Akta 172) memperuntukkan tiada seorang pun, selain Pihak Berkuasa Perancang Tempatan boleh memulakan, mengusahakan atau menjalankan apa-apa pemajuan melainkan telah mendapat kebenaran merancang.
“Ini bermaksud bahawa projek-projek Kerajaan tidak terkecuali daripada mengemukakan permohonan kebenaran merancang. Peruntukan seksyen 63 Akta Tafsiran 1948 dan 1967 (Akta 388) menjelaskan tiada undang-undang bertulis dalam apa cara sekalipun boleh menjejaskan hak-hak Yang di Pertuan Agong atau Kerajaan kecuali undang-undang itu memperuntukkan dengan nyata atau dengan implikasi yang perlu bahawa Yang Dipertuan Agong atau Kerajaan, mengikut mana yang berkenaan, akan terikat dengannya.”
The next time a local council officer tries giving the excuse that government projects can bypass the local council, you can tell the officer that the local council is violating the law and going against His Majesty the King, since the laws are approved in his name.
Importance of accessibility
One can only wonder why local councils have preferred not to enforce their powers in accordance with the law that gives them authority over the building plans of government buildings.
Part of the problem could be the blind spot many of us who are able-bodied have. We don’t see beyond the immediate benefits of accessible infrastructure to the disabled community. To use the argument that any one of us could also end up being in similar circumstances due to an accident rarely draws a reaction because many believe such a fate is always reserved for someone else.
What most people fail to consider is that with age comes physical challenges. I have an 86-year-old grandmother who finds it a struggle to climb up a flight of stairs. This prevents carefree family outings since all of us have to ensure that the place we are headed to is easily accessible.
From an economic point of view, if I could easily take her out to a restaurant and treat her to a fine meal or take her shopping, I would be spending money that I otherwise would not. Yet it is far easier to travel to — say Australia — where these facilities for people with disabilities are far more commonplace.
Our society loses out on the disabled customer because we don’t provide easily accessible buildings and facilities, not just for locals who are disabled but for tourists as well. According to Beautiful Gate, there are some 300,000 people with disabilities in Malaysia who were registered with the Welfare Department in 2010. This figure does not include the elderly who are similarly challenged. Imagine all the potential business we can generate from our own disabled community alone, as well as future possibilities with tourists who might choose Malaysia as a holiday destination if we were more disabled friendly.
MBPJ councillor KW Mak wants the public to know that he has not given up on the fight for freehold land titles for Petaling Jaya residents. Since going public with this issue in October 2010, he has managed to piece together even more documentary evidence with the help of long-time PJ Old Town residents to prove the case. These documents are all from the 1950s and include: a sales and purchase agreement for a house in Section 3, a certificate of fitness for a house in Section 2, the auditor general’s report on the sale of PJ properties and the Sultan of Selangor’s instruction to make PJ a town.