If you are someone who regularly uses the Mirpur road, which stretches from Mirpur 12 all the way towards the capital's New Market, chances are you have encountered a metal blackboard at Asad Gate, inside the parliament building complex boundary.
Adjacent to the complex boundary, the black metal board says in white paint that this land is allocated for making a playground for the disabled and National Foundation for Development of the Disabled Persons (NFDDP) under the Ministry of Social Welfare (MSW) is responsible for the maintenance of the field.
I have been seeing this board for the last 10 years and still, no playground exists. In those 10 years, I completed my higher secondary studies and university graduation; and secured a full-time job - but that board seems stuck in time, with no change and most importantly, with no playground around.
Instead, the 4.16-acre land remains untouched, with blooming purple bauhinia trees and weeds growing, turning it into a jungle, a perfect habitat for mosquitos.
Dhaka city lacks open spaces and playgrounds for the population it has, and when it comes to disabled children, there is none. According to the recent population census, currently there are 23 lakh 63 thousand people in Bangladesh who are fighting with disabilities and need special care.
The playgrounds that we see around us, are they inclusive for them?
Jahangir Alam, Senior Coordinator of Centre for Disability in Development (CDD) who is also visually impaired, shed light on the issue.
"Inclusive playgrounds are important to develop social and emotional abilities, as a visually impaired person I can tell you that. I cannot go out and have a quality time with my kids as there is no such safe place where I can let them play around and not worry that I will lose them. So this idea of building a playground for the disabled is a step that I appreciate."
Before this playground was planned, did the ministry of social welfare or NFDDP consult with the organisations that work with disabilities? To this Jahangir replied, "I do not know if the ministry or the NFDDP had consulted any officials, but they did not conduct a field-level FGD or any such thing. That I can tell you."
Faruqul Islam, National Director of Special Olympics Bangladesh, said, "Special Olympics is for intellectually disabled people and children and that playground is being made for the physical disabled, as far as I know. It has nothing to do with us and I cannot help you with any information as I do not know anything much about it."
So all this brings me two questions: 1) Is there ever going to be a playground in the first place? 2) And even if there is one, will it be inclusive?
How long does it take to build a playground?
Starting from a 2011 announcement made by the Prime Minister to this year, the project has been moving at snail-speed.
According to Sukumar Shaha, assistant director of planning and development of the National Sports Council of Bangladesh, the final design and proposal had been approved by the ministries. They are now waiting for the tenders. Mohammad Sarwar Jahan, director of the council's planning and development director of the council said 21st August is the last day for dropping tenders.
But according to NFDDP, the project already started in 2011 with Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina's announcement that there will be an open space and playground in the parliament building area. The responsibility was given to NFDDP under MSW.
According to Probhash Chandra Roy, Director of the Foundation, the 4.16 acre land acquisition process for the playground was completed by 2016 and PWD (Public Works Department) handed over the piece of land to the NFDDP for maintenance in December 2016.
Then in January 2017, ASM Feroz, the then chief whip of the parliament, announced that it would be completed within six months.
However, NFDDP was not allowed to start work until they got approval from the National Parliament Secretariat, as the land is within the parliament building area and the secretariat's consent is required to start any work there.
The foundation sent letters to the secretariat three times from July 2017 to January 2018.
On 7 June 2018, NFDDP got the permission from the parliament secretariat to start the work for the playground after which PWD and the Department of Architecture and NFDDP sat for a meeting on 25 June.
The Department of Architecture asked the PWD for a 'Detailed Digital Survey' to create a design of the playground on 15 July, and a detailed report was submitted in August. On the basis of that report, the department of architecture designed the project and submitted it to the MSW and the NFDDP.
The MSW showed the design to the National Parliament Secretariat for approval. Then the PWD estimated the cost of the whole design, and sought funding from the MSW.
"Now," Probhash Chandra Roy said, "by the time it reached the ministry in 2018, it appeared that the budget had been set according to the rate schedule of 2014 and, prices of materials had increased. And in all these, no one noticed the backdated rate schedule and approved the plan."
Sukumar Shaha, Assistant Director of the Ministry of Youth and Sports said that it was in November 2019, when the youth and sports minister instructed him to redesign a playground on the basic design of the department of architecture in 3/4 days.
By that time the pandemic hit and the project stalled. According to Sukumar Shaha, the project has been approved by the MSW and they will start the construction 'soon.'
How an inclusive open space should be designed
According to the Persons with Disabilities' Rights and the Protection Act 2013, there are 11 kinds of disabilities - autism, physical, psychological, visual impaired, speech disability, hearing disability, hearing-visual disability, cerebral palsy, down syndrome and multiple disabilities. And building an inclusive playground means creating an area which will be safe, accessible, usable, affordable and aesthetically pleasing for them.
Sukumar Shaha said, "We were instructed to design a space with minimum artificial facilities and construction, so that there is enough green space to explore."
According to him, in the new plan, there is going to be a pavilion in the playground area which will have features like the parliament building. The entrance as well as the bathrooms will have ramps for people with physical disabilities. The rides are going to be compatible with their needs. Also there will be a green gallery and around the playground there will be a special pavement tiles-ramp for wheel-chairs.
But contradicting Faruqul Islam's comment, Sukumar informed that it is not just for the physically disabled, in fact, people with any kind of disability will be able to play comfortably here.
There are other important aspects to focus on as well.
In a 2006 paper titled 'Barrier free park designs for the disabled persons,' the author Hazreena Hussain analysed a park in Kuala Lumpur and talked about how a barrier free inclusive park can be designed for the disabled. There she referred to architect Noraishah Hussain who stated that the components for an inclusive park can be divided into two sections - the hardwares (ramps, walkways, bridges, sea-saw, swing etc) and softwares (plants, waterways).
While installing hardwares there are a couple of things that are important to notice. Unexpected changes of ground levels can be dangerous for the disabled, same goes for the complex playsets and elevated installations.
Jahangir said from his personal experience that "most of the stairs in Bangladesh are of the same colour, which makes it difficult for me to distinguish the elevation in them."
Plants must be chosen very carefully. The plants will provide shade, screening and define different spaces, but it is important to consider that they shouldn't be thorny, spiny, stingy or poisonous.
It is important to ensure that plants are planted near ramps and stairways as guidance to the visually impaired. To provide texture for the sense of touch and smell, fragrant plants can be introduced at a scale of shrub-height, and also climbers and creepers.
The breeze, crackling sound of the falling leaves, chirping birds - all these are a part of learning, especially for the ones who have visual impairment and hearing disabilities.
Although the selected land for the playground in Dhaka is adjacent to the main road, which means there will be a lot of noise, it is still a good initiative if proper guidelines are followed.