It is a hard task making all buildings accessible to all, considering the wealth of protected historical buildings on the island. However, this is one of the obligations entered into by Malta when the country signed the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities and the Optional Protocol (UNCRPD) in 2007, which was ratified and came into force in 2012.
But who are the individuals whose rights the Convention protects? According to article 1 of the UNCRPD “Persons with disabilities include those who have long-term physical, mental, intellectual or sensory impairments which in interaction with various barriers may hinder their full and effective participation in society on an equal basis with others.” Therefore, the different needs of these individuals may not necessarily be evident at first glance.
This is why all places that are open to the public need to be accessible to all people at all times. If this is not the case, the owner of the premises would be discriminating on the basis of different abilities by excluding or restricting access to his or her premises to persons with different needs.
In this regard, the Commission for the Rights of Persons with Disability (CRPD), issued a checklist to assist architects in the drafting of drawings that will be vetted for accessibility issues. This checklist prevents unnecessary delays in the issuing of permits by the Planning Authority (PA) and, therefore, architects are encouraged to use this checklist in order to have their PA applications in conformity with accessibility requirements. Additionally, the CRPD has also issued the Access for All Design Guidelines which further assist architects in the drafting of their drawings.
It is a reality that certain structural alterations break the bank and here one asks to what extent are buildings required to be accessible for all. According to the UNCRPD, such access is based on the notion of “reasonable accommodation” meaning that the owner is required to carry out the necessary and appropriate modifications and adjustments to his premises in order to ensure that everyone has access to his premises on an equal basis. However, it is also ‘reasonable’ because an exception is made when such alterations to the property could impose a disproportionate burden on the owner.
Therefore, as a state party to the Convention, Malta, through article 5 of the Convention, is obliged to take all the necessary steps to ensure that reasonable accommodation is provided.
Article 9 of the UNCRPD then specifies that such access needs to enable these individuals to live independently and to participate fully in all aspect of life and therefore, they require access “…to the physical environment, to transportation, to information and communications, including information and communications technologies and systems, and to other facilities and services open or provided to the public, both in urban and in rural areas.”
Moreover, article 20 of the same Convention states that “States Parties shall take effective measures to ensure personal mobility with the greatest possible independence for persons with disabilities…”. This includes facilitating their mobility at the time of their choice and having mobility aids at an affordable cost.
In this regard, transport services and mobility aids are in fact available for rent and/or purchase on our islands. However, when one compares the costs of, say, a non-accessible taxi to a wheelchair-accessible taxi, the price of the wheelchair-accessible taxi (when available) is between double and three times as much. Therefore, there are still many special needs individuals who are seeking an independent life but who, due to financial burdens, cannot afford to socialise as independently as they desire.
In order to truly comply with the provisions of the UNCRPD, it is essential that the state parties not only ensure that the physical environment is accessible to people with special needs and that accessible transport and mobility aids are available, but also that they are affordable for these individuals as required through article 20.
Dr Jenilee Agius
Family Law - Immigration Law - Civil Law
This commentary should not be regarded as legal advice. Contact us to learn more about equality and protection from discrimination.