Accessibility issues dog Divisoria malls

The Inbox

By Imee Charlee Delavin and Marvic Masagca, VERA Files

The streets of shopping haven Divisoria in Manila are again jammed as the Christmas season among Catholics in the country starts Sunday and the shopping frenzy escalates.

After all, Divisoria has a wide range of goods to offer—from clothes, footwear, jewelry to toys and school and office supplies, to fresh and green vegetables and fruits—priced far, far cheaper than in many other places. The district itself has a variety of shopping outlets: malls, markets, both wet and dry, tiangge and street hawkers.

As many like to say, Divisoria is "everyone's go to"; it is a "place for everyone."

Not quite.

Emilia Tigor, who used to be a regular at Divisoria, said even the malls there are not hospitable to persons with disabilities (PWDs) like her—unlike many of those located elsewhere.

The Saturday afternoon she was in Divisoria weeks before Christmas, the 56-year-old amputee was struggling to make it through the rowdy and crowded streets with her wheelchair.

"Mahirap, mahirap. Kailangan may magtutulak o magbubuhat talaga sa 'yo. Wala kasing madaanan ang wheelchair. Kung nasa loob ka naman, hanggang dun ka lang talaga sa baba kasi kadalasan di naman gumagana ang mga elevator (It's difficult. You need someone to push or lift your wheelchair because there are no provisions for wheelchairs. If you're inside, you often have to just stay at the ground floor because the elevator is often not working)," Tigor said.

Republic Act 7277, the Magna Carta for Disabled Persons, prescribes a "barrier-free environment" to ensure that PWDs should have proper access in private and public buildings and establishments.

An earlier law, Batas Pambansa 344 or the Accessibility Law, provides that "no license or permit for the construction, repair or renovation of public and private buildings for public use shall be issued unless the owner or operator thereof shall install and incorporate in such building, establishment, institution or public utility, such architectural facilities or structural features as shall reasonably enhance the mobility of disabled persons such as sidewalks, ramps, railings and the like."  The law mandates the Department of Public Works and Highways to see to the implementation of this provision.

The minimum architectural facilities and features included in the Implementing Rules and Regulations of BP 344 are walkways, corridors, doors and entrance, washrooms and toilets, lifts/elevator, ramps, parking areas, switches, controls, buzzers, handrails, thresholds, floor finishes, drinking fountains, public telephones and seating accommodations.

Despite the laws, many structures in Divisoria, including those in the malls, seem to overlook the provisions for the PWDs. The basics such as such as ramps, handrails, functioning elevator and comfort rooms specially designed for the PWDs are lacking, if not functioning.

At the Tutuban Center, there is no ramp outside for the entry and exit of PWDs. Though there is ramp inside, it is too steep for a wheelchair.

At the 168 Shopping Mall, the ramp near the entrance is used to transport goods because it is not PWD-friendly at all. An architect interviewed for this story said the ramp is too steep and there is no handrail which is a requirement in building ramps specifically designed for PWDs.

Other malls like Juan Luna Plaza Shopping Mall, for example, do not provide ramps for PWDs at the main entrance. Juan Luna Plaza Shopping Mall's elevator is located at the far back of the building, which is hard to find. Getting there would be hard for PWDs, especially those in wheelchairs, because of the stalls that occupy the walkways and corridors.

It's the same with the newly built 999 Shopping Mall:  There is also no ramp near the mall entrance.  The mall has a comfort room exclusively for PWDs, but it is locked and no attendant is always available.

A civil engineer who tracks mall designs said in an interview that a number of malls in the Philippines are usually hit and miss when it comes to PWD accessibility. And it all boils down to what he calls the mall's "philosophy."

Some malls, for example, also fail to provide enough resting areas.

"Philosophy kasi ng mga malls yan e. Walang pahingahan para laging mapilitang maghanap ng bibilhin yung mga tao (That is a mall philosophy. There are few resting areas, so people are forced to browse for more things to buy)," the civil engineer said.

The civil engineer also said the Philippines lags behind other countries in terms of PWD accessibility laws.

He said reserved parking lots for PWDs in the Philippines, for example, can be used by a non-PWD because there is no way of knowing who the car owner is. In the US, PWDs have special car plates that indicate that the car owner has a disability.

These problems can be addressed, he said, through proper enforcement of the laws, as well as updating them to further remove barriers to the full participation of PWDs in society and enjoyment of their rights.

Removal of obstructions that may endanger a person with minimal or no sight
Clear signage that points the direction of the facility, generally identifiable, non-glossy to prevent glare, distinguishable color, and has reasonable text size
Furniture such as resting areas and public telephones that can be used by PWDs and does not obstruct pedestrians
Free pathways that are non-slip, wide enough for wheelchair users, detectable and free from obstruction
Curb ramps that are easy to identify, located strategically, and do not exceed the slope of 1:12
Accessible parking facilities marked by signage, PWD parking properly enforced, and accessible to entrance areas
Ramps that are wide, clear of obstructions, identifiable, and not steep
Elevators that are identifiable, have embossed numbering or employee assisted, and with visual and audio signs indicating arrival at a floor
Platform lifts that can be operated manually, with controls not exceeding the height of 1.21 meters
Stairs that are not too steep, non-slip and with slip-resistant strips
Railings that are easy to grip, identifiable, secure, and continuous except when interrupted by pathways
Accessible entrances that provide ramps if needed, non-slip, and at least 0.9 meter wide
Doors that can be opened with little effort, with handles easy to grasp, and have sufficient space
Corridors that are obstruction-free and maneuverable
Restrooms that have sufficient space and can be easily used by PWDs
Source: United Nations

The authors are senior journalism students at the University of the Philippines-Diliman. This story is a wrap-up of the reports they submitted on accessibility of shopping malls for the journalism seminar class "Reporting on Persons with Disabilities" under VERA Files trustee Yvonne T. Chua.

(VERA Files is put out by veteran journalists taking a deeper look at current issues. VERA is Latin for "true.")