Building for the disabled


Published on 06/07/2011

1.3 million Kenyans have no access to public buildings, yet the law has given developers and property owners upto 2014 to retrofit all buildings to accommodate this special group, writes NJOKI CHEGE.

Keziah Mwelu will never forget the day she had to miss an important conference held at a city building just because she could not access it. Being confined to a wheel chair was hard enough for her, but the fact that she could not access most buildings in town made it unbearable — and it had everything to do with the missing access ramp in that building.

Steven Oundo, Chairman, Architectural Association of Kenya

“I felt very disappointed because I was not able to go the meeting. The access ramp was not there and this is the case with most buildings I visit.’ She says.

Keziah’s tribulations represent those of 1.3 million Kenyans with disabilities in Kenya, whose housing rights are yet to be realised. They may go unnoticed by many, but their tribulations are many and their grievances legitimate. Most of these persons with disabilities, particularly those on wheel chairs, find it hard to access buildings that have no ramps, or that have steep access ramps.

Support rails

But the problem does not end there. As Mwelu explains, the switches, cooking slabs, kitchen sinks, kitchen cabinets and taps are too high for her and she has to ask for assistance when using them. The washrooms too, are not disability compliant — there are no support rails and neither is there enough space to maneuver about.

It gets worse when renting a house and the entire ground floor is taken, nobody is willing to give up their house for this disabled person who cannot get themselves to say, the fourth floor. The usual tasks that come naturally to most of us become a nightmare to persons with disabilities.

According to Section 23 of the Persons with Disabilities Act of 2002, which was passed in December 2009, accessibility to buildings by persons with disabilities should be made possible by all stakeholders of the construction industry.

In part, it states, ‘Every public building should be made accessible to persons with disabilities’. The same section also states that owners of buildings have a grace period of up to five years to retrofit their buildings to ensure they are compliant.

Phoebe Nyagudi, the chairperson of the National Council for Persons with Disabilities says that they are watching keenly to see if building owners and developers will comply by 2014.

“We hope that the buildings coming up are going to be disability compliant. So

Phoebe Nyagudi: “The National Council for Persons with disability will soon conduct building audits.”

far, only a handful of buildings have complied to ensure accessibility for people with disabilities,” she offers.

Comparison to other countries

Elsewhere, in the US Department of Justice, the Americans with Disabilities Act (Ada) has outlined several disability rights laws to ensure that the housing rights of the disabled are realised.

In part, the Act states that ‘Public accommodations must comply with basic nondiscrimination requirements that prohibit exclusion, segregation, and unequal treatment.’

The requirements cover several areas namely; architectural standards for new and altered buildings, effective communication for people with hearing, vision, or speech disabilities; and other access requirements.

The Fair Housing Act, as amended in 1988, requires landlords in the US to allow tenants with disabilities to make reasonable access-related modifications to their private living space, as well as to common use spaces.

The Act further requires that new multifamily housing with four or more units be designed and built to allow access for persons with disabilities.

This includes accessible common use areas, doors that are wide enough for wheelchairs, kitchens and bathrooms that allow a person using a wheelchair to maneuver, and other adaptable features within the units.

Kenyan situation

So why is it that most buildings in Kenya are not disability compliant?

Stephen Oundo, the chairman of the Architectural Association of Kenya says space and cost are the key hindrance.

As Oundo explains, ramps require a lot of space, which is normally not a luxury of many owners and developers.

“Ramps translate to a lot of circulation space; For every 1m in height, you need a ramp of at least 10m. Since most buildings have a 3m floor-to-floor height, you will require approximately 30m of ramp from floor to floor,” he says.

Since good gentle ramps require a lot of space, they are only possible in large-scale projects with enough space, like malls and hospitals. Because of this, many owners of buildings would rather skip the ramp, while others argue the population of the disabled is negligible.

The other alternative, which is elevators, is costly.

“The disabled would be best accommodated in a lift so that they could also access the top floors, but most owners feel that the lifts are too expensive,” says Oundo.

For owners who may not be able to cater for the disabled in the top floors, they are advised to ensure that the disabled are taken care of in the ground floor, so they don’t have to go to the other floors in search of common services.

However, several property developers have found an economical yet practical way of taking care of the disabled when it comes to housing.

Harun Nyamboki, the Director of Moke Gardens notes that while designing their buildings, they always ensure that a duplicate self-contained master bedroom is provided on the ground floor to ensure that the disabled persons can access the facilities without the hustle of going upstairs.

As Nyamboki advises, the most economical way to cater for the disabled in any building is to ensure that all the facilities they require are provided for on the ground floor.

“While it may be difficult to find apartments with low level kitchen cabinets and electricity switches, developers are advised to consider adjusting such facilities for the disabled to make them user friendly,” he says.

Way forward

Nyagudi notes that owners and Kenyans in general need to be sensitised on this matter.

Most developers and building professionals don’t understand the needs of the disabled and as a result, fail to cater for them in their projects.

“To this end, we have dedicated time and resources to carry out an audit in Nairobi, Mombasa and Kisumu to establish how many public buildings have adhered to the new law, and how many are planning to do so,” adds Nyagudi.

This audit will also be accompanied by vigorous awareness campaign to sensitise owners, developers and planners to consider the needs of persons with disabilities in their plans.

Nyamboki on the other hand advises developers to consider the disabled by ensuring their buildings are made in such a way that they can be modified to accommodate this special group.

“The issue of housing rights for the disabled is complex due to the fact that their needs are varied. Wile some are on wheelchairs and need access ramps, others are on clutches orare blind. However, it is important to have flexible buildings to accommodate the disabled, in spite of their disabilities,” says Nyamboki.

People also need to be educated on what the law says concerning accessibly rights of the disabled, particularly owners and developers who are the key decision makers.

According to Oundo, this should include a building approval process that ensures that buildings under construction are disability-friendly.

“Any building that does not have plans to cater for these people should not be approved by the city council,” he says.

Furthermore, all buildings that have more than four floors must have lifts in accordance to the by-laws.

Architects should advise their clients to consider the needs of this special category by either incorporating the lifts or ramps in the architectural designs.

“The Government ought to reduce the cost on tax for buildings and building materials that are specific for the needs of the physically challenged,” concludes Oundo.


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