Smart cities are failing to satisfy the basic public needs of the disabled – say 60% of the global experts as per a new survey conducted by ‘Smart Cities for All’. Although activists and startups are working to provide a better urban environment for the disabled. They are looking for the comfort and convenience they need, which is missing in the cities.
As discussed in one of our previous blogs, ‘Smart Cities for All’, reveals that only 18% of the experts confirm that the smart city initiatives they are familiar with go as per the international standards for all-inclusive ICT accessibility.
The new survey focusing on 175 entrepreneurs in technology incubators showed that 43% of the respondents had a strong understanding of accessibility and inclusion in their own products. However, a third of the respondents were uncertain whether their technological products could be disabled-friendly.
In order to address this problem, the second effort of ‘Smart Cities for All’ helps to improve life for the disabled in the urban environment. On May 6th, 2019, they launched a new ‘Inclusive Innovation Playbook’ in partnership with World Enabled and developmental support from AT&T.
Their new document describes five ‘plays’ and associated actions smart cities can take to introduce inclusion and accessibility as part of innovation. This comprises focus on the citizens, infrastructure, economic assets, network and enabling public policies. Additionally, it also explains the successful practices and insights from the government, civil society and the private sector.
The book is created to help entrepreneurs, innovators and developers who design technology and smart city solutions, policymakers and civic hacking community leaders. Hopefully, the book will also be of help to smart city programme managers, educational institutions focusing on researching innovation and disability organisations.
By far, we have focused on the written studies that support the development of all-inclusive smart cities. But essentially the smart cities should also hear directly what the disabled community has to say. What obstacles they are facing on a daily basis? Let us hear from some of them!
Voices From The US
We have a say from Dr Victor Pineda who is disabled and at the same time is the head of World Enabled. As per his experience, displays like touch-screen kiosks are a hindrance rather than convenience for people like him, who use wheelchairs and have limited use of their hands and arms.
This problem is getting graver as more and more cities are embracing digital displays like these in the place of human cashiers and receptionists. Dr Pineda says, “If a kiosk is the only way I can buy a train ticket or pay for a service or get information, I’m excluded from that”.
Disabled people including those who are challenged in terms of vision, mobility, hearing and cognitive function often travel to big cities in a hope to grab the benefits of the comprehensive conveyance systems and public services. But, ironically, they often end up getting frustrated by what they have to face there.
The law in the US does not specify how municipalities should design and implement digital service keeping the disabled people in mind. In that case, sometimes embracing technological solutions gives rise to problems related to accessibility instead of resolving them.
For example, LinkNYC kiosks installed in New York City in 2016 did not comprise instructions in audible form or screen-reading functionality. Soon after the American Federation for the Blind appealed the city, the kiosks were updated. However, according to Dr Pineda, these touch-screen kiosks are still not completely disabled-friendly.
Furthermore, although municipal bodies have begun using social-media-based apps to get feedback from citizens, these platforms cannot be used by blind, visually impaired people or elderly over 65 who might have issues with vision. So, their voices are being left behind and not heard at all.
Similarly, Adriana Mallozzi, a technology entrepreneur who lives in Boston and uses a wheelchair and faces difficulty with hands and arms gets frustrated when the city deploys technology without examining how it could help people like her. For example, she has to struggle with the buttons that are equipped next to doorways and intersections to open doors and activate crossing signals.
A Voice From Australia
Adam Bowes who wishes he could use his wheelchair while navigating through the train network is a 24-year-old actor and double amputee from Sydney’s south-west. His prosthetic legs cause crippling back pain while he travels.
But his biggest problem is due to the stairs at the stations. This was the time when the lift at his daily stop failed when he was on his way to work. The station guards advised him to go around the other side of the station which was a dangerous, half hour trip on his wheelchair.
He said “I just thought it’d be easier if they took the wheelchair up and I crawled up the stairs. So I had to get out of my wheelchair and get onto my stumps and hands and just crawl my way up because that was the only way I was getting to work on time, I was really just frustrated about it because it shouldn’t have to happen.”
This kind of frustration is experienced among the 1.6 million Australians with a disability and who rely on public transportation including a huge part of the country’s train network that is inaccessible to them.
There are about 960 train stations in Australia among which 90% of them were supposed to have met the accessibility standards by the end of 2017. But now all of them will have the task done by 2022.
As reported by ABC News, one in four stations in the country is not independently accessible. In simple words, if you are using a wheelchair or have a mobility-related problem, it is not possible to use about 270 stations in Australia.
The main problem with the stations is the steps. A survey stated that 40% of disabled who use public transports had issues with steps. This is not the only issue, though. The same survey based on the disabled and elderly in the country revealed some had problem with lifts, others had issues with ramps being too steep, some had faced car parking problems while others emphasised on lack of audible announcements at stations, poor signage and inadequate helping hands at stations.
The UK In The Same Line
Just like any other so-called smart city, there are should-not-have-happened experiences from the cities of the UK.
A disabled person’s experience in Dundee shows how things matter for those who are physically challenged. Like a number of other cities, this one has some buses and taxis that are not accessible. Although there are disabled-friendly toilets which are difficult to manage as the door opens on a heavy spring. To remark on apparently smaller things, there are trash bins placed in the middle of the floor or a floor with ceramic tiles that get as slippery as ice when wet.
Coming to the rail network in the UK, 40% of the stations are inaccessible to 11 million disabled people in the country. This is mainly because of the interior design that does not cater to the disabled and inadequate assistance from staff members.
Recently, actions were taken to address the situation such as Network Rail’s new accessibility app to enhance accessible train services. Yet, the UK train network is still not comprehensively disabled-friendly.
This is just a glimpse of what disabled people face in the abled people’s world. They say abled people genuinely don’t understand how it is to live with a disability.
On one side when there are bad experiences, on the other side there are good experiences as well. There are initiatives and cities that show how a disabled-friendly urban environment should look like. The world already has some good examples, we just need to understand, plan and implement them!