x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

New building codes to solve access problem

Building codes are being changed to ensure new dwellings have accessible features.

ABU DHABI // Building codes across the emirates are changing to ensure new structures are accessible for everyone.

Last week Sharjah implemented new building codes that will make accessibility mandatory.

In Abu Dhabi regulations based on international standards that came into effect in January require all new buildings to be accessible for residents with disabilities.

The codes include mandates for the maximum incline of ramps, the width of doorways and hallways and the height of necessities such as fire alarms and thermostats.

"We're working on designs that adhere to accessibility regulations from the parking lot to the entrance, to inside the building," said Imad Al Darubi, a consultant from the International Code Council. "Hopefully, a few months from now, we'll have full Abu Dhabi accessibility."

The DMA has been working with the Zayed Higher Organisation for Humanitarian Care and Special Needs (ZHO) to develop the guidelines for accessibility in new buildings.

Thomas Pape, a senior technical advisor for ZHO, said the recommendations are concentrated mostly on modifying bathrooms, hallways and access ramps.

While the municipality is making strides in tackling accessibility issues for new construction and development projects, existing structures are not required to be made compliant with the regulations retrospectively.

"Most existing buildings are not accessible and that is an issue for people with special needs," said Ali Bukair, a consultant for policies and regulations with the capital's Department of Municipal Affairs (DMA). "People are not sure if they can get in or not. We take accessible buildings for granted."

While ZHO works with families and employees looking to accommodate those with special needs in existing homes and offices, more requires to be done. Most bathrooms in Abu Dhabi, for example, are not accessible "at all", said Mr Pape.

"The range of disabilities are so diverse but generally, put yourself in a wheelchair and try to go into a bathroom and you will see how difficult it is," Mr Pape said.

"But what we're seeing is public institutions asking for support and guidelines. It will not take that long to see accessibility in existing buildings."

In Dubai, the Ministry of Social Affairs has been working to make hotels, parks, malls and entertainment venues more accessible for more than three years. It draws on feedback from a working group of 12 people with disabilities.

In the past the working group has helped develop guidelines for Braille signage, elevators, parking and audio signals at pedestrian crossings.

The ministry plans to release a full report about access at the Dubai Metro this year, and is now examining problems at banks and financial institutions, particularly ATMs, said Nazem Fawzi, a ministry advisor.

"The misconception is that people think accessibility is only about ramps," said Nazem Fawzi, a ministry adviser.

"It's a lot of things. Accessibility in malls is different than accessibility in parks. Someone who is hearing-impaired needs something different than someone with physical disabilities." The ministry will also review related legislation from Europe and the US as part of its strategic plan for improving accessibility in Dubai. Those standards will then be adapted to work with the local environment.

"Our goal is to continue and improve this here, then spread it in other emirates," Mr Fawzi said. "People are asking for advice and help and we are ready to help them."