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Wheelchair users' city tour - 4 December 2007

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Yesterday was International Disability Day. I took part in a well-planned campaign by the Mongolian Wheelchair Users Association.

The Wheelchair association chair Chuluundolgor, (with whom I am working, via VSO, on architecture accessibility norms and 'independent living' ), organised a 'Tour of Our City, UB' with the help of one Tsevelmaa. Fourteen wheelchair users visited (by prior arrangement) seven publicly accessible buildings in the city on the tour.

After opening speeches at the 'Open Society Forum' the group, including business leaders, researchers, fitness teachers and computer workers, wheeled through heavy UB traffic on the cold and sunny morning to the bus parking. Volunteers lifted eight at most into each of two rented city buses. The brewery visit, with lab capes, was crowded, and very noisy in the bottle filling hall, but apart from the entry steps, was straightforward.

The next stop, Bayar's Construction, was actually held at 'Diana' school, and despite the founding principles of the funder (to fight exclusion of poor and disabled children) all participants had to climb five entry steps, then over a stage blocking the doorway. The programme, of entertainment from pupils, and the food and drink were great. Interviewed about my impressions as a foreign expert and architect on my departure, however, I had to say the physical barriers were a major problem for the visit.

At the Mongolian Youth Federation, everyone had to go up two flights of stairs, with other building users shoving their way past, to a first-storey meeting room and a comprehensive powerpoint presentation. At the next visit, Mongolia's biggest mobile phone company, there were good ramps, floors and cloakroom, and telephone credits were given out.

At the city governor's office, temporary wooden ramps had been emplaced on the six stairs in the entry lobby, and down a few more into the public meeting room. As with the building firm, the hosts seemed not to recognise the 2002 building norm (31-101-04) for wheelchair users. Nice books about the City of Ulaanbaatar were presented, but little hope was instilled for improving the state of accessibility of UB streets and buildings. The governor apologised that the officially counted 18,032 disabled people represented a minority in the market economy, while an actvist beside me suggested 35-70,000 would be a more accurate national figure.

Finally, to Tengis Cinema, founded 2002, where I had previously overlooked so many steps. We carried the 14 wheelchair users down from the buses, through the busy parking area, eight steps to the entrance, then two long flights of stairs to ticketing and cinema entrance. I admired everyone's patience as I saw one wheelchair user manhandled to the inaccessible WC. The cinema manager was responsive and friendly, and after a glass of champagne, everyone sat in the front of the cinema and enjoyed a new Mongolian film.

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