Sidewalks in Addis, the visually impaired, and human rights
Walking in Addis Ababa is not safe for people with disabilities because the infrastructure is not constructed considering their needs. For example, it is very common to see uncovered drainage line holes, which are usually found on the sidewalks and have caused many. The visually impaired are especially vulnerable to accidents since, in addition to the drainage line holes being left open, the tactile sidewalks that are meant to guide them usually lead directly to the holes.
It is also common to see poles, construction materials, or street vendors in the middle of the sidewalks which force pedestrians to walk alongside traffic. This is even more dangerous for the visually impaired and it has worsened their life struggle. In a story shared by the Ethiopian Business Review in 2019, a visually impaired woman who was injured while walking home described her fear of walking on the streets of Addis by saying “I always seek for help as I constantly fear that I would die and get injured while crossing roads and walking on the street. … Unfortunately, the city is built without considering the needs of disabled people like me”.
The city has not improved itself since 2019 to make sidewalks more accessible to persons with disabilities and it is a matter of commonsense to understand that the uncovered drainage line holes are a danger for the visually impaired. But should sidewalks be sources of accidents for the visually impaired? Is not the Government obliged to ensure their safety? This article highlights the obligation of the Government under human rights law, especially under the International Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (hereafter CRPD), to protect the visually impaired from accidents.
How are Sidewalks in Addis a human rights issue?
The rights of persons with disabilities are protected in every human rights instrument including the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights (ICESCR). More specifically, they have been given special protections under the CRPD to which Ethiopia is a party. Accordingly, article 9 of the CRPD ensures the right to the accessibility of the visually impaired. According to the Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, accessibility “is a precondition and a means to achieve de facto equality for all persons with disabilities”. And “for persons with disabilities to effectively participate in the community, States parties must address accessibility of the built environment”. This includes sidewalks “which must be available and usable for all persons with disabilities on an equal basis with others”. Without accessibility, persons with disabilities would not have equal opportunities for participation in their societies. For example, without well-built sidewalks that are accessible to persons with disabilities, the visually impaired cannot carry out the day-to-day tasks of life equally with able-bodied people. Consequently, by virtue of article 9 of the CRPD, States are obliged to make roads, buildings, and other indoor and outdoor facilities accessible to persons with disabilities. This is supported by the United Nations Standard Rules on the Equalization of Opportunities for Persons with Disabilities (hereafter Standard Rules) which were adopted by the UN General Assembly in 1993 to ensure the equality of persons with disabilities. Rule 5 (a) of the Standard Rules specifies that “States should initiate measures to remove the obstacles to participation in the physical environment”. The standard rules also state that “accessibility requirements should be included in the design and construction of the physical environment from the beginning of the designing process”. As a result, uncovered drainage line holes and other obstacles that hinder the movement of visually impaired people should be repaired or removed in order to allow them free access to their physical environment without any fear of accidents.
In addition, dangerous sidewalks greatly impair the full exercise and enjoyment of the right to economic and social rights of the visually impaired such as their right to health. For instance, unlike able-bodied people, persons with disabilities are in constant danger of falling into uncovered drainage line holes which will cause severe injuries and affect their mental and physical health. As a result, the lack of access to public facilities such as sidewalks for the visually impaired also amounts to disability-based discrimination which, according to the Committee on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights, is “any distinction, exclusion, restriction or preference, or denial of reasonable accommodation based on disability which has the effect of nullifying or impairing the recognition, enjoyment or exercise of economic, social or cultural rights”.
What does the Government have to do?
Human rights law obliges the Government to respect, protect, and fulfill the rights of the visually impaired. The duty to respect entails that the Government should refrain from any acts that deny the visually impaired access to their environment and that discriminate against persons with disabilities. Accordingly, the Government has the duty to cover drainage line holes which are usually left open on the sidewalks of Addis, and to remove Government made obstacles such as poles from the sidewalks. Under the duty to protect, the Government is obliged to protect the visually impaired and their rights from third parties. This includes making sure that street vendors and construction materials will not block the sidewalks so that persons with disabilities including the visually impaired can walk freely. The duty to fulfill requires the Government to provide accessible infrastructure for the visually impaired, for example, by constructing quality tactile sidewalks and repairing roads in accordance with the needs of the visually impaired. Based on the Standard Rules, the Government “should ensure that architects, construction engineers and others who are professionally involved in the design and construction of the physical environment have access to adequate information on disability policy and measures to achieve accessibility”.
In conclusion, it can clearly be asserted that sidewalks in Addis are not accessible to the visually impaired. The uncovered drainage line holes and all the obstacles on the sidewalks that force pedestrians to walk alongside traffic amount to discrimination against the visually impaired and are violations of their human rights. As a result, the Government should address the daily struggles of the visually impaired by improving the conditions of the sidewalks.
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