Enrique Peñalosa Londoño once said that “an advanced city is not a place where the poor move about in cars, rather it’s where even the rich use public transportation”. That assertion by Mr Londoño, a Colombian politician and an advocate of an urban design movement that favours walkable districts, could have come from the idea that the more advanced the human mind is, the more it pays attention to the environment. Public transportation brings environmental and economic benefits by enhancing the energy efficiency. The popularity of public transportation could also indicate a better income equality, according to some studies.
Some people argue that the most advanced cities are those with the tallest buildings or the most developed economies. That notion is open to debate, as each of us has a different view of the meaning of advancement. And the answer could change depending on the time period. What is considered advanced today might be outdated tomorrow.
In my opinion, one of the most important signs of advancement in any city is the integration of people with special needs into the community.
I’ve been to the United States recently, and noticed how advanced the special needs facilities in public places are, starting from the airport to streets to libraries and shops.
The airport was fully prepared and equipped to accommodate people with special needs. I saw two young boys at Los Angeles International Airport with a rare kind of developmental disorder who found difficulties in giving their fingerprints and I was impressed with the way the airport staff dealt with them in a professional and courteous manner.
Pavements were accessible for people with limited mobility. People who are developmentally disabled, hearing-impaired, blind, or physically disabled have special facilities in entertainment places, such as theme parks and theatres. Every shopping mall I visited had ramps and lifts, even in parking areas.
The United States is not alone in this. Many modern and sophisticated societies around the world have made tremendous efforts to provide all kind of services to people with special needs to integrate them in mainstream society.
The UAE made a huge shift in its approach in dealing with people with special needs when it started to move away from the traditional practices of care and rehabilitation and towards a more modern approach that focuses on empowering people educationally and economically, and incorporating them in society rather than separating them.
But as her excellency Sheikha Lubna Al Qasimi, the UAE’s Minister of International Cooperation and Development, said in a speech to the UN General Assembly last September, despite progress made by the UAE in recent years, there is still more to be done to support the rights of people with special needs.
This country has established various centres for people that provide them with care and attention.
There are 42 centres in the country, ranging from care and rehabilitation centres and clubs to societies and institutions that cater to 4,450 students, according to 2012 statistics from the Ministry of Social Affairs.
There are other examples of the efforts the country has been making in recent years, including federal guidelines for people with reduced mobility in airports, a new taxi service for the disabled in Abu Dhabi, a move to ensure that school buses can transport pupils with disabilities in Dubai, new facilities for people with special needs in Sharjah and Ajman, and a project to fund research into undiagnosed developmental disorders in children.
But cities still lack special needs-friendly ramps at street-level and at building entrances, elevators with braille labels, and suitable public toilets at many public places, including parks, libraries, beaches, shopping malls and other buildings. There is also a shortage of specialised counters in major public places to assist people with special needs.
Abu Dhabi Municipality, for example, has designed a building code that requires all new buildings to have provisions for disabled people. But older buildings still need refursbishment to implement such policies and regulations.
Implementing new rules, of course, is not an easy mission, as it requires tremendous efforts and time. Such rules need to be followed by integrated public service frameworks and systems to support services for special needs people, and this cannot be reached without collaboration between government and private entities.
In developed countries, according to The National Disability Authority in Ireland, a liveable community has been defined as one that provides affordable accessible housing, reliable and safe transportation system, and adjusts the physical environment for inclusivity and accessibility. This kind of community can support the vision of self-dependence that people with special needs really need to feel they are part of the society.
Only when we have all that, can we call our cities advanced and special-needs friendly.
On Twitter: @AyeshaAlMazroui