Abu Dhabi's battle to make path easier

Handicapped accessibility is something the Urban Planning Council is aware of, but officials caution patience with the relatively new infrastructure.

Emirati Abdullah Al Saad struggles to get around the capital in his wheelchair, because many buildings lack ramps and special walkways. Fatima Al Marzooqi/The National
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ABU DHABI // Abdullah Al Saad has travelled all over Europe with little difficulty, but the wheelchair-using Emirati says he sometimes struggles to make his way through the capital.

Mr Al Saad, 29, is self-sufficient and fulfils his responsibilities at home and at his job with the Department of Transport. He prefers to do everything by himself. He drives, travels and shops alone.

But the walkways, buildings and shops in the UAE challenge him.

Mr Al Saad was paralysed from the waist down in a road accident. He was not wearing his seatbelt and was thrown from the car, breaking his back. But he has not been discouraged.

"In fact, I feel now more energetic, active and self-sufficient," he says. "I fulfil all my necessities by myself and never would I like to seek help from others to push me up."

Mr Al Saad has allowed The National to share his daily experience as he makes his way through the city.

He lives in Al Wathba, about 40km from the capital, and drives every morning to his office in Al Bateen.

"I stayed in Germany for a while for the rehabilitation after my car accident six years back," he says.

"Accessible transportation is in place including taxis, buses, tram and trains. All of them are very user-friendly for people of special needs.

"I stayed in Germany 10 months, and eight months in the UK."

In many European countries there are websites detailing how best to get around when disabled.

"It informs where to park, buy tickets, slopes for special needs - all the accessibility information is there before you visit the country," Mr Al Saad says. "I can make my research from my desk before going there."

He says the same kind of information should be available on websites in the UAE.

Gonzalo Surroca, a municipality architect, says making a city like Abu Dhabi accessible is not as easy as it seems.

"But one has to keep in mind the differences," Mr Surroca says. "These countries you are referring to have a long history of over 100 years.

"They have developed codes and standards slowly through time and improve and improve. And this country has been built in a little time and expands so quickly.

"So this is the big challenge to have everything in codes. It's very different from England, Germany and Spain with years and years of traditions and slow growth. They had plans and codes before the buildings."

But he agrees that having transport information on a website for the disabled is a good idea."We should work on that."

Mr Al Saad says there are events in the capital he would like to have attended but had no way to find out if the venues were accessible or what sort of ticket would be required.

The Department of Transport has made great strides in making its buses user-friendly and equipped for wheelchair users, but the problems come when he tries to visit friends.

Many buildings in Abu Dhabi lack ramps and special walkways, and some footpaths are in disrepair.

Khalfan Al Nuaimi, director of construction permits at the municipality, says regulations are in place for special fittings in new buildings. It is putting older buildings in line with standards that is the issue.

Some buildings put in ramps on their own, without waiting for codes to be enforced, but that is not always the best solution, Mr Al Nuaimi says.

"The building is old and if people build ramps randomly without any plan they will make a problem," he says. "The ramps and accessibility issues are the design and you cannot do it like that."

Mr Surroca says: "The old city streets and buildings were developed long before these building codes, but now the municipality is gradually striving to retrofit shops and restaurants with ramps and new specifications."

All new construction will require ramps with proper grading for accessibility, he says, and existing building codes will ensure new facilities can be easily reached.

Mr Al Saad says some government departments are hard to get to.

"The parking is available but the accessibility ramp from the street is almost broken," he says. "And the one where you access the building is very sharp and it's very dangerous, and at the end of the slope there is a door.

"So you need someone to push you up and someone to hold the door.

Building codes say disabled people must have access to every level of the building, whether by ramps or lifts, Mr Surroca says.

He adds the challenge for Abu Dhabi is in its existing buildings.

"I think all these old buildings were constructed in the 1980s or before that," he says.

"The municipality has been studying and working on accessibility issues to make all the city's shops and entrances accessible.

"The only thing they can do for old buildings is to improve it and the municipality has been doing that."