Asean smart cities – do not forget the disabled

The Asia-Pacific region is urbanising at breakneck speed. In Asean alone, 90 million more persons will move into cities by 2030. This scale of urbanisation puts huge pressure on essential public services on which vibrant economies and inclusive societies depend.

As governments work to expand service provision and build new infrastructure for smart cities, universal design-based accessibility must be at the heart of their approach. By definition, smart cities are reliant on information and telecommunications technologies to meet the needs of their residents. But if we are not careful, in our rush to create smart cities for present and future generations, we risk leaving persons with disabilities behind.

Some 15 per cent of the global population live with disabilities. In the Asia-Pacific region, this works out to 690 million people. They face significant barriers to full and effective participation in society because their environment fails to consider their needs.

The effects are multifaceted and long-term: Children with disabilities are kept from school, adults find it difficult to find meaningful employment, gain reliable access to healthcare or have a say in the political process. As a result, persons with disabilities in Asia have lower levels of educational attainment, fewer job opportunities and are more likely to be poor. There is concern that their difficulties may worsen.

Today, precious few smart city developers are taking into account accessibility standards which would allow persons with diverse disabilities to access the physical infrastructure and information others enjoy. These standards can ensure smart cities’ pavements have braille blocks, ramps are built for wheelchair users and ticket machines and automated teller machines are equipped with audio-based communication systems for visually impaired persons.

Standardising technological solutions such as text-to-speech software to help visually impaired persons access computers in local languages, electronic ballot systems to make it easier for them to vote and visual warnings to guide persons with hearing impairment during emergencies are other ways by which the human rights of persons with disabilities are recognised and respected.

The recently established Asean Smart Cities Network (ASCN) is an opportunity to step up efforts and ensure the design of smart cities is universal, more inclusive and people-centred.

Launched in Singapore, this network is currently preparing a framework to make 26 pilot cities in the region “smart”. Now is the time to hardwire universal design-based accessibility into the ASCN framework ahead of its adoption at the 33rd Asean Summit next month.

There are solid foundations on which to build. The Asia-Pacific region has been a trailblazer in relation to the rights of persons with disabilities and disability-inclusive development. It was the first region in the world to adopt a regional Decade of Persons with Disabilities in 1993, and 86 per cent of Asia-Pacific countries have ratified the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.

The governments in this region developed the world’s first disability-specific regional development agenda – the Incheon Strategy to “Make the Right Real” for Persons with Disabilities in Asia and the Pacific. It has a clear goal: to enhance access to the physical environment, public transportation, knowledge, information and communication. It promotes universal design which ensures products, services and physical environments are accessible to all from day one.

Guided by these regional aspirations, the ASCN provides Asean and the rest of Asia and the Pacific with an opportunity to promote disability-inclusive smart cities. But to do so effectively, it should adopt universal design-based accessibility standards upfront, which would benefit not only persons with disabilities, but also others such as the elderly.

Early adoption of universal design keeps costs low and has far reaching benefits for persons with disabilities and their fellow citizens. Multi-stakeholder engagement processes, involving vulnerable groups upfront, can ensure immediate needs are met while helping plan for the requirements of an ageing population.

With our sights set high, the UN Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific and the UN Secretary General’s Special Envoy on Disability and Accessibility are firmly committed to joining forces with their Asean partners to take this agenda a step further.

Making smart cities accessible to persons with disabilities will support growth in our economies, equality in our societies and inclusive development in Asean. We have a historic opportunity to shape best practices for our region, to make accessibility for the disabled a hallmark of Asean smart cities. It should not be wasted.

Download the Op-Ed on The Straits Times, Wednesday, October 10, 2018.

Ms Maria Soledad Cisternas Reyes is the United Nations Secretary General’s Special Envoy on Disability and Accessibility.
Mr Kaveh Zahedi is Deputy Executive Secretary of the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific.