Dubai to retrofit thousands of buildings to improve disabled access

Schools, hotels and public buildings to be modified in emirate and further afield

Dubai is set to modify more than a 1,000 existing buildings to cater for those with disabilities, including schools, hospitals and hotels. Last year new wheelchair-friendly paths at Kite Beach were unveiled. Satish Kumar / The National

Thousands of schools, hospitals and hotels in Dubai will be retrofitted over the next three years to make older buildings easier to access for people with disabilities.

Similar work is being conducted across the UAE, with authorities at the federal level collaborating to understand the work required in the public and private sector.

The move is part of a broader drive to create mobility, employment and opportunity for people with physical and mental disabilities.

“The number is in the thousands if you put together the schools, health care facilities, mosques, parks and recreational areas, shopping malls and retail centres,” said Salem Al Shafei, a director of policies and programmes at the General Secretariat of the Executive Council of Dubai.

“In the tourism sector itself we have around 680 hotels. It will be well over 1,000 buildings in 10 key sectors and this includes education, healthcare, tourist destinations, mosques so it goes into thousands of existing buildings."

Developers have been told they will not receive permits for new buildings unless they are "in full compliance" of rules ensuring they are accessible to those of all abilities.

"We have a team that is working on the delivery on the ground. We are now in the execution period and we are putting the policy into work. This will cover more than 100km of streets, road networks to make these more accessible and we are anchoring it on a 2020 timeline.”

Mr Al Shafei was speaking at the launch of Making Dubai Disability Friendly by 2020, organised by Emirates NBD.

The criteria has been built in for all new structures but handling the older buildings had posed the challenge.

The Dubai Universal Design Code and bylaws clearly define how buildings and transportation systems are designed, constructed and managed to enable people with disabilities to independently enter and leave the area.

Read more: Dubai's wheelchair access 'has improved but there are ways to go'

Setting out targets for the next three years is important due to the staging of the World Expo 2020 in Dubai, during which 25 million people are expected to visit in the six months from October 2020.

Buildings were being audited by a team from the Executive Council to chart out the changes required in older structures with largescale public access that were identified for retrofitting.

“The team is working on audits for every building in the 10 categories. Any gaps will be worked on in the retrofitting. Some things may take longer than 2020. Even if we don’t realise a 100 per cent vision, even 80 or 90 per cent of our target will be a great improvement in the lives of people," he said.

“We need to work to remove all barriers,” Mr Al Shafei said.

“Right from the start policies should be inclusive. We must change the attitudinal barriers and prejudices, the way we look at people with disabilities, the information barrier in reaching out to them, changing laws and policies within organisations to help them grow apart from changing the physical environment."


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Yahye Siyad, a learning and development assistant manager for Tanfeeth, a subsidiary of Emirates NBD, who is visually impaired said accessibility features were used not just by people with disabilities but those who suffered sports injuries, young children and the elderly.

“People say only 5 or 10 per cent of society may be registered as disabled. They may say it’s not a priority, why are we spending millions? Disability can be temporary, like you cannot climb the stairs if you break your leg playing football and you too will need ramps and elevators," he said.

"The ‘beep’ feature in traffic lights that helps blind people like myself may also help someone who does not see the green man, because they are distracted looking down at their phone. We need to promote the disability discussion so people understand that it’s not just a good thing to do but it’s something that can impact all of us.”