Deadly Obstacle Course At Gurney Drive

Casuarina tree outside Restoran Khaleel blocking almost the entire sidewalk at Gurney Drive
Casuarina tree outside Restoran Khaleel blocking almost the entire sidewalk at Gurney Drive.

Continuing from my previous entry regarding the lack of kerb ramps to the seafront promenade at Gurney Drive, there actually are quite a number of them across the road. The first kerb ramp is outside Evergreen Laurel Hotel where the blind man crossing sign is. However, there is no ramp to get off the sidewalk at the other end.

The subsequent kerb ramps outside the Zealand Cafe, Carnation Cafe and Song River Cafe are either poorly constructed or lead to sidewalks blocked by trees, phone booth or lamp posts. Wuan and I encountered a lamp post right in the middle of a sidewalk reminiscent of the one that we maneuvered around at Pandan Perdana and fell off the pavement and onto the road.

Kerb ramp and lamp post blocking sidewalk at Gurney Drive
Lamp post right in the middle of sidewalk at the junction of Persiaran Gurney – Jalan Birch.

When these sidewalks are not blocked by trees or street furniture, we encountered vehicles indiscriminately parked on the driveways and blocking access to the kerb ramps. In the end, I had to go on the road, too, and face oncoming traffic passing by inches away just like what I experienced the day before.

Wuan and I had gallivanted around Gurney Drive several times before this and I wonder how we managed then. We must have had more courage back then. Or perhaps we had faith in drivers in Penang to be careful and considerate. The accessible facilities for disabled people in Gurney Drive are simply built without much thought and consideration, and are a danger not only to disabled people but non-disabled pedestrians as well.

Vehicle blocking access the kerb ramp at Gurney Drive
Indiscriminately parked vehicle blocking access to kerb ramp at Gurney Drive.

Like I have repeated so many times before, building a ramp does not make it wheelchair friendly, handicapped friendly or disabled friendly, whatever we choose to call these facilities. They must be safe to use and barrier free. The ones at Gurney Drive are not. They fall short of even the most basic of requirements.

The people at Majlis Perbandaran Pulau Pinang (MPPP) must take note of these matters seriously. It is a matter of life and death for disabled people when we have to go on the road to move from one point to another. It is not that difficult to make good kerb ramps and sidewalks that are barrier free. But I see the same mistakes being duplicated all over all the time.

Phone booth in sidewalk at Gurney Drive
Helo? There is a phone booth blocking the sidewalk at Gurney Drive.

This issue is not unique only to Gurney Drive, or Penang for that matter. Dewan Bandaraya Kuala Lumpur (DBKL), Majlis Perbandaran Ampang Jaya (MPAJ) and Majlis Bandaraya Ipoh (MBI), to name a few, all build facilities that are mostly non-usable by disabled people despite of the availability of Malaysian Standard MS 1184: Code of Practice for Access for Disabled Persons to Buildings and Malaysian Standard MS 1331: Code of Practice for Access of Disabled Persons Outside Buildings

The engineers, architects and whoever are in charge of such infrastructure in the local governments are not doing their job properly. Two years after coming into force, the Akta Orang Kurang Upaya (Persons with Disabilities Act) rings hollow for disabled people whose right of equal access to public facilities are still being overlooked and ignored.

Risking Life And Limb At Gurney Drive

Peter Tan at Gurney Drive
Wheelchair user forced to use the road at Gurney Drive.
Photo by Wuan.

Wuan and I were in Penang last week. That was not the first time we played tourists at Gurney Drive. The previous times we were there, we liked to stroll along the Casuarina-lined promenade early in the morning and evening to soak in the beautiful seascape and then adjourn to one of the numerous kopitiams for some local hawker fare afterwards.

Peter Tan at Gurney Drive
The Toyota Unser sped by just mere inches away from a wheelchair user at Gurney Drive.
Photo by Wuan.

We did the same this trip except we realised that kerb ramps to get to the promenade are far and few in between. I had to go on the road for quite a distance from the Gurney Resort Hotel and Residences, where we were staying, before we arrived at the first kerb ramp opposite Evergreen Laurel Hotel. In between that, I had to brave oncoming traffic on the road, hoping and praying that I won’t get hit by a car or a motorcycle speeding by us before I got to the kerb ramp.

Peter Tan at Gurney Drive
Wheelchair user fighting for space on the road at Gurney Drive.
Photo by Wuan.

Gurney Drive is a rather long stretch of road, about 1.9km from end to end. Likewise the seafront promenade, which is a continuous stretch of uninterrupted walkway. There are simply too few kerb ramps for wheelchair users to get onto the promenade or get off to go to the kopitiams across the road. As a popular tourist destination, the lack of accessibility makes it difficult for disabled people to fully enjoy our time there. Most importantly, our safety is severely compromised each time we are forced to use the road with other vehicles while trying to locate a kerb ramp.

Peter Tan at Gurney Drive
Blind pedestrian crossing sign and kerb ramps on both sides of the road at Gurney Drive.
Photo by Wuan.

The Penang state government, the Majlis Perbandaran Pulau Pinang (MPPP) and the Ministry of Tourism Malaysia should make a serious effort in improving the accessible facilities at Gurney Drive in line with the government’s effort to promote tourism in the country as well as to fulfil the obligations as required under the Persons with Disabilities Act 2008, namely the rights of equal access to public facilities, and to recreation and leisure activities.

Inclusive Tourism And The Advocacy For Accessible Facilities

The advocacy for accessibility in the built environment has been ongoing for at least twenty years in Malaysia assuming we began from the time the Malaysian Standards MS 1184: Code of Practice for Access for Disabled Persons to Public Buildings and MS 1331: Code of Practice for Access of Disabled Persons Outside Buildings were first drafted.

By-law 34A of the Uniform Building By-Law (UBBL 34A) gazetted separately by the various state governments in the 1990s has done little to change the scenario. UBBL 34A requires that all new buildings provide access for disabled people. Buildings that do not have such facilities when the by-law came into force must provide them within three years.

No doubt new buildings such as shopping complexes have a certain degree of accessibility, these are far and few in between. These buildings by themselves are islands in an ocean of barriers. It is difficult for disabled people to get to these places as there is lack of connectivity in the form of accessible pedestrain facilities and public transport.

One of the excuses given often for lack of accessible facilities is budget. The federal government does not have the budget. The state governments do not have the budget. Municipal governments do not have the budget. To exacerbate the situation, municipal governments who are responsible for the approval of building plans do not have the expertise to ensure that MS 1184 is strictly adhered to.

It is all about money. As long as providing accessible public facilities do not generate revenue, there is little reason for the government to spend money on it. From the way I see it, if the disabled people’s movement in Malaysia continue to advocate the way we are used to, come next fifty years, we will still be complaining about the same issue.

Disabled people need to come out with a fresh angle to advocate. We have evolved from advocating solely for disabled people to embrace a wider circle of people who may find such facilities convenient. These include senior citizens, pregnant women, adults with prams and children. This is a good strategy but obviously is not sufficient to move the powers that be.

Advocates for accessibility should seriously consider promoting the idea of inclusive tourism in Malaysia. Tourism is a major industry in this country. According to Tourism Malaysia, 22 million tourist came to Malaysia in 2008 generating a total receipt of RM49,561.2 million.

Inclusive tourism applies the principles of Universal Design to allow the participation of the broadest range of tourists, principally disabled people. However, other categories of tourists like senior citizens may find this form of tourism convenient due to the accessible facilities.

Accessible tourism will definitely benefit the economy by tapping into groups of tourists who do not usually consider Malaysia as a destination previously due to the barriers that we have here. The facilities in turn will benefit disabled people locally. At the same time, it will also spur dosmetic tourism for disabled people as there are presently limited options in travelling to other countries due to the same issues.

I truly feel that this is a strategy worth looking into. We have not gained much all the years that we have advocated for accessibility. If this does not work, we have nothing much to lose anyway. In fact, the tourism industry in Malaysia as a whole has much to lose as more and more countries around the world move towards making their tourist destinations accessible should the powers that be continue to ignore this matter.