For most delegates, the second African Union International Conference on Maternal, New-born and Child Health convened at Safari Park Hotel, Nairobi between October 29 and 31 was a normal event with the usual rush to catch a session.
But for Ms Ralpher Mwenesi, the reproductive health coordinator for Kakamega County, and one of the conference panellist, the experience was anything but pleasant.
The first time we saw her, she was bound on a wheelchair and was being carried down a flight of stairs by a group of four men, attracting a lot of attention from onlookers. She was leaving the Pavilion hall after attending the pre-conference on Sunday, October 28. The hall did not have a lift or ramp.
At some point on the way down, the men carrying Ms Mwenesi stopped midway to catch a breath, a clear sign of the Herculean task they were engaged in.
There are more than 1.3 million people with disabilities in Kenya. Section 23 of the Persons with Disabilities Act of 2003, which was passed in December 2009, guarantees them unhindered access to buildings and further compels all stakeholders of the construction industry to make this possible.
In part, the section states, ‘Every public building should be made accessible to persons with disabilities’. The same section also gave owners of buildings a grace period of up to five years to retrofit their buildings to ensure they are compliant.
But four years after the expiry of the grace period, it appears that a majority of buildings are yet to fully comply with this directive, and where it seems like something has been done, it is haphazardly done.
For instance, outside the conference halls, Ms Mwenesi needed even some more assistance. Despite the availability of ramps at the Safari Park grounds, she required two things: to be pushed up the ramp and to be secured safely on the wheelchair to avoid toppling over, thanks to the steep ness of the ramps.
“The ramps are too steep, presenting the risk of falling and being carried up and down a staircase to me is not a very dignified way of treating someone with a disability,” she lamented.
The whole experience she says, made her less independent and more at the mercy of staff at Safari Park when it came to accessing various halls where conference proceedings were happening.
“I have been to Safari Park thrice, twice with a disability, after falling sick to an illness that affected my ability to walk. The only thing that has changed between now and the first time I came here looking this way is that the staff are more willing to assist,” says Ms Mwenesi.
She told DN2 that she spent three days at the hotel on her previous visit and the hotel’s management only provided a wheelchair but no one to push her around. Despite raising concerns with the marketing manager, she says, nothing much has changed.
When we spoke to her on the sidelines of the conference, Ms Mwenesi also took issue with the lack of an accessible toilet at the hotel.
“By now Safari Park should have had a fully automated wheelchair. Besides that, it is regrettable that they do not have a toilet dedicated to people with disability,” she says, adding that the issue with the normal toilet is that it is prone to heavy traffic and people might pour water on the floor, presenting the risk of accidental falls. “Also, it is less hygienic as a disabled using their four limbs is bound to pick infections from the toilet,” she noted.
Furthermore, the normal washrooms in most cases are not disability compliant — there are no support rails, the sink and toilet are not lowered enough for ease of access and neither is there enough space to manoeuvre about, making the life of a disabled hard.
Ideally, to avoid mistaking it, the washroom meant for people with disabilities should have the international symbol of a wheelchair, a sign used on toilet doors to indicate an accessible toilet.
It is recommended that it should be spacious to allow manoeuvre, have non-slip floor, be well lit, lowered hand wash basin, lowered toilet complete with handrails, and a close-to-the-floor wall mirror.
Touted as ‘The African Paradise’, perhaps for adopting the African architecture and art in its design, Safari Park’s proximity to the bustling city life, its bushy, almost rustic look makes it a popular destination for conferences, attracting delegates from far and wide.
Our attempts to speak to the hotel’s management were futile. We were informed that the general manager was held up in meetings and our e-mail to him had not been responded to by the time of going to press.
But the problem is not unique to Safari Park Hotel. Ms Mwenesi says she has been through similar experiences at KICC and many other public facilities.
“At the JKIA the other day, I caused a scene when I adamantly refused to use the normal toilet and demanded that they provide me with an accessible toilet. They had to wheel me to the VIP lounge where there is one. But when you think about it, it is so unfair to the common person that only the VIP lounge has this facility,” she decries.
The National Council for Persons With Disabilities (NCPWD) told DN2 that they have been encountering challenges galore with compliance to the Act.
To begin with, a majority of developers complain that their buildings were put up long time ago and are almost impossible to retrofit.
With regards to minor changes like installing a ramp, most are not following specifications given by Kenya Bureau of Standards and the Council and therefore instead of having a ramp, Mr Francis Anyenda, NCPWD public relations officer says, end up with a slope. This could be the case with Safari Park Hotel.
Mr Anyenda admitted that enforcement has been a challenge as the current Act does not say “who should demolish a building in case it is not accessible.”
“A review of the Act has already been approved by Cabinet. It will provide mechanisms for enforcement and help solve some of these issues,” he says.
On May 31, during a conference organised by interior designers to discuss universal design, Dr David olé Sankok, a nominated member of Parliament who represents people with disability, said they have adopted soft-spot approach instead of hard-line stances when it comes to compliance with the Act.
Mr Anyenda said this approach is aimed at ensuring accessibility while not pushing investors out of business. However, its effectiveness is subject to question.
“Some have complied through modifications but there are those that have done nothing,” he said.