This paper, by James D. Harrison from the School of Architecture, National University of Singapore, Singapore, describes the situation for disabled persons in Singapore, and the background leading up to proposals on accessibility which called for the introduction of a mandatory Accessibility Code for all buildings (including existing ones).
Report of the CIB Expert Seminar on Building Non-Handicapping Environments, Budapest 1991
Introduction to Singapore and relevant administrative bodies
Precedents: A chronology of the development of awareness and application of accessibility
In that same year the Singapore Council of Social Services published a useful booklet entitled 'Access Singapore: a Guidebook of Accessible Places in Singapore for the Physically Disabled', which was compiled to make users more aware of existing facilities and presumably to encourage owners of buildings that accessible buildings were a good thing. This has subsequently been updated in 1989 and 1991.
Access for disabled people in Singapore: Recent advances and the current situation.
Type of Building Minimum Provisions
Shophouses and first-storey shops The shopping area shall be made accessible in accordance
Hotels At least one guestroom shall be provided for every 200
Concert halls, cinemas, theaters, At least one wheelchair space shall be provided for every
Religious buildings The main area of worship shall be made accessible in
Hostels, halls of residence or At least one level, preferably the access level, shall be
Hawker or food centers At least one table without any fixed stools or chairs for every
Car Parks(surface car parks At least one car parking lot shall be reserved where car park
Others: (Large department shall be provided for persons whoa are unable to stand for
Definitions of disability and a comment on the scope of codes
- presence of physical barriers, such as steps or doors which are too narrow for wheelchairs,
- lack of facilities such as ramps, elevators, staircase, handrails,
- absence of suitable facilities such as WCs, telephones, suitable furniture, etc.
Note however that in the preface to the Code on Barrier-free Accessibility in Buildings the phrase "the elderly and the physically handicapped" is used no less than five times in five sentences; the elderly, though not specifically with physical disabilities, are clearly seen as one of the major beneficiaries of the new legislation.
The current document, "Code on Barrier-Free Accessibility in Buildings, 1990," which forms the basis for the building control regulation requirements in force in Singapore, which evolved out of the PWD's internal Guidelines (much of the wording is identical) does not include the sensory disabled (which its precursor did) but comes clean by stating that a "disabled person" means (only) someone who is either ambulant disabled or a wheelchair user, "as a consequence of physical disability or impairment". In its 'Scope and Definitions' chapter the Code makes it clear that it is narrowing the real thrust of its requirements as being "intended primarily to apply to the wheelchair bound. Such provisions would also cater to the ambulant disabled. However, where possible and practicable, optional access provisions and facilities are recommended to serve the needs of the ambulant disabled. Such provisions when taken as a whole would also greatly benefit the elderly and infirm.
"The Code also contains further definitions: "Ambulant disabled means a person who is able, either with or without personal assistance, to walk on the level or negotiate suitable graded steps provided that convenient handrails are available." "Wheelchair-bound means a person who is unable to walk, either with or without assistance, and who, except when using mechanized transport, depends on a wheelchair for mobility.
"Two things emerge from this; firstly the definitions of disability are closely linked to the physical and built environment and to the inability of the disabled person to adequately cope with everyday barriers and "normal" facilities, and secondly the assumption that if the wheelchair user is accommodated, then most other persons with disabilities will probably be able to access the building and be catered to by its facilities, as well as to parents with pushchairs or prams (though there appear to be few in Singapore). Such rationale has the ring of pragmatism about it but it may well be true that a wheelchair user can be most disadvantaged by even the lowest of barriers, and thus has the most to gain in personal independence in a truly barrier-free environment.
In its scope the Code on Accessibility breaks no new ground; door, corridor, stair and ramp access dimensions and details are covered; minimum sizes and heights of control buttons for elevators, (but no mandatory requirement for audible signals) are given, and sanitary provision for both wheelchair users and ambulant disabled people are comprehensively covered. General design requirements cover such provisions as reserved parking lots, and pavements from them to the building which are unimpeded and have a maximum ramp gradient of 1: 1 0. Facilities with counters for writing or service must construct the counters at a certain height and have clear space for the wheelchair below.
Problems of the discontinuous system
Prior to the introduction of the Code on Accessibility a number of architects and clients were enlightened enough to provide toilet accommodation accessible to users with disabilities, only to find that the building was in itself not entirely accessible to this section of the population (unless they arrived by motor vehicle) because of curbs or steps in the public domain. In other words, there was a mismatch between public and private provision, a discontinuous system. Under such circumstances developers may be excused for being reluctant to spend a little more money on special provision when those for whom it has been provided are unable to reach it. Equally frustrating are examples where public footways leading to a building are barrier-free, until one arrives at the threshold of that building only to find that it has steps up to its front door.
Since 1970 the Public Works Department has made it standard practice to provide curb-cut ramps at all newly-constructed footpaths, but in a city with an infrastructure as comprehensive as Singapore's, this represents a lot of remedial work to upgrade those footways constructed prior to this. Eventually, however, Singapore can achieve a barrier-free environment by a combination of initiative in the public sector and legislation to require the private sector to make equal provision.
Some special problems of designing in an equatorial climate
Singapore's equatorial climate poses some problems for the designer of barrier-free pedestrian routes. The incidence of rainstorms and the sheer volume of water precipitated require that any hard paved area must be drained and that run-off must be controlled to prevent the flooding of building basements. For this reason high curbs (often 200 mm or more) separating road from footpath and raised thresholds at building entrances are very necessary. Storm-water drains, often covered by metal gratings, are ubiquitous features of the public domain. Obviously all of these can prove to be barriers or hazards to the disabled user.
As the climate in Singapore is always hot and continuously humid, physical conditions can be uncomfortable. For the average pedestrian the perceived reasonable comfortable walking distances are more limited than in a temperate climate. It is especially important to provide shade as well as shelter, particularly as physically disabled people cannot so easily protect themselves from the sun or the rain as they move about.
Although not a climatic problem some consideration should also be given to the local method of cleaning floors, which is to use copious amounts of water to hose dirt into channels or scupper drains and thence to floor gulley-traps. Where such methods of cleaning are expected, (and this may range from markets and canteens to domestic bathrooms and kitchens), it is usual to provide a raised coaming or a slight change in floor level to prevent washing water spilling over into other areas. These slight changes in level are, of course, a hindrance to the wheelchair user, as well as a hazard to the ambulant or the visually disabled pedestrian.
Current walkway schemes by the PWD
Since the introduction of regulations requiring accessibility to all new or retrofitted buildings in the private sector, it has now become incumbent on government agencies to match the level of facility in the street approaches to buildings. In April, 1988 PWD undertook a survey, at the request of the Committee on Employment, Accessibility and Transportation, to look at the accessibility problems in the Orchard Road area, one of the main commercial, hotel and shopping districts of the City and the Civic Center of the City. Thereafter that same department began to draw up proposals for an ambitious scheme for a level, unimpeded walkway system for both these areas and for the downtown financial business district, all of which are nearing completion. Costs for these are quoted at $49 million Singapore, of which $29 million can be directly attributed to improvements for disabled user.
Imminent future plans include similar improvements in the touristic areas of Chinatown, 'Little India' and Kampong Glam/Bugis Street. Eventually, the upgrading of the other urban and suburban areas will include the removal of all barriers like curbs and steps.
One of the major problems, especially in the Orchard Road area, is that the shopping centers and hotels are set back from the street, so that vehicular access is by means of a service road running between the building and the footway. At each building plot's boundary the footway is intersected by the entry/exit road, which is hazardous for pedestrians and difficult for wheelchair users. PWD's scheme has eliminated the problem, relocating service roads on the outside of walkways.
Accessibility by vehicle
Many large commercial buildings in Singapore have integral multi-storey or basement car parks served by an elevator to the main floors. Such buildings are adequately accessible to the wheelchair users provided that they use cars. This is a relatively small proportion of those affected. A wheelchair user wishing to arrive by taxi would be taken to the front door taxi drop-off point, which may have curbs or steps, rather than to the elevator in the car park, as this would demand that either driver or passenger have prior knowledge of the facilities provided, and possibly be prepared to pay for car park entry charges.
The Mass Rapid Transport (MRT) system is designed for rapid transport at peak times and any potential delay is obviated. Consequently, no toilets and only limited seating are provided inside the ticketed area, and the vertical circulation is by escalators which move more rapidly than normal. At a planning level it would seem the presence of wheelchairs may have been seen as presenting problems too difficult to handle and that the conscious decision might have been taken to encourage their users to take alternative means of transport not difficult in Singapore where taxi services are good and no point on the island is excessively far.
It is also rationally argued that the presence of wheelchairs would cause evacuation problems in an emergency. However, this has not precluded the MRT from providing facilities for ambulant disabled users; in fact there are some seats on the MRT prominently marked as being for priority use by the aged or disabled, but anyone with major disabilities would probably find difficulty in claiming this right.
axi services are economical and efficient. Some taxis carry stickers "Care Cabs" and belong to a SCSS scheme to match drivers to disabled passengers who have transport problems in getting to work or school. A taxi subsidy scheme alleviates fare problems for those who are unable to meet the costs of daily rides. Recently introduced London-type taxis are proving especially capable of accommodating wheelchair users.
Private car ownership
The number of owner-drivers of purpose-built or modified vehicles on the roads is low (although statistics are not available). One reason for this may be that disabled people are less likely than others to be high wage earners and hence may not be able to afford a vehicle, even though substantial waivers on import and registration fees are applicable for these classes of vehicles. Also, owners would be eligible for benefits in terms of reductions in parking fees in HDB estates. So far less than 60 new vehicles have been registered under this scheme. It should be remembered that whilst specially constructed or modified vehicles are quite common on European roads this is not the case in Asia. The apparent discrepancy may be partially explained by the history of the last fifty years: amputee ex-servicemen returning from the Second World War were supplied with such vehicles, having been drivers previously and still being productive wage-earners even in their disabled capacity. The Asian counterpart would probably be much more difficult to find, and only now are purpose-built or modified vehicles becoming used in Singapore.
The future may change the situation, Singapore is still a relatively young nation. However, the ageing but relatively well-off population used to the freedom of driving their own vehicles will surely expect to continue this privilege even though some of their physical faculties may become impaired. We may expect a greater demand for special parking close to building entrances and better access from car parks to work places or recreation.
Conclusions: the future
It is too early to assess the success of the recent advances in legislation and upgrading the walkway system. Most buildings coming up for completion were already approved before the current legislation came into force, and there are still major obstacles to be tackled in the public domain. Footbridges are common and were formerly thought to be the most effective way of crossing the road without disrupting traffic flows. Alternatives need to be found, if total accessibility is to be achieved. In some places elevators are proposed suitable for wheelchair users.
On a broader perspective, future trends will probably cater to a more financially secure sector of the ageing population who, unlike their forbears, will not give up their favorite pastimes, or stop driving their cars simply because they are becoming older and they probably will not register themselves as disabled persons. Just as an old man complains that the birds do not sing as loudly as when he was young, so the older generation will be less tolerant of a physical environment which presents barriers to their mobility. The scope of access legislation clearly involves old persons as benefiting from any improvements in that area, as well as pregnant women, parents with children in pushchairs and so on.
Tourism is a major source of income. A relatively high proportion of visitors are retired people, who are attracted by the safe and clean image of the city. This industry will benefit by improved accessibility, especially in those areas which attract visitors the shopping and hotel areas, and the historical quarters; in turn will come the international prestige, which a small republic like Singapore must maintain to survive.
What is perhaps most significant is that Government policy, whilst being generally quite pragmatic in its approach, is now able to broaden its scope to consider the needs of minorities, in the move "towards a caring society". That it has done so in such a short space of time, and that it has committed itself to the creation of barrier-free walkways which will eventually cover much of the built-up area of the island, is very much the style which Singapore does things. To quote the Minister for National Development, Mr. S. Dhanabalan, "Singaporeans can look forward to living in one of the best cities of the world by the turn of the century. We will certainly be the first developed city in the equatorial belt."