Volume 3 Issue 16 - August 15, 2005

Barrier-free Access for all: A step to freedom

Delhi, the capital city of India, is undergoing a facelift. The Municipal Corporation of Delhi (M.C.D.) had recently promised that the Capital will have new Building Bye-laws in place by January 2006 that would be simple and user-friendly. Adding weight to this is the fact that there will be a panel of architects and designers to approve the building plans. The M.C.D. Commissioner Rakesh Mehta unveiled the draft copy of the new Byelaws at a workshop in Delhi and announced that once the final draft is ready, public objections will be invited. Unfortunately, disability finds no mention whatsoever in such an important law where even redevelopment of areas is being considered. Again, the Delhi Government has come up with a draft Master Plan with the grand ‘vision’ of transforming the Capital into a world-class city by 2021. But the Plan that is far from perfect has come in for heavy criticism from all quarters, including the disability sector, for its lack of vision. Chitra S. Shankar examines the issue on the eve of India’s Independence Day.

Picture of a wheelchair user trying to reach a high postbox

Even after ten years of the passage of The Disability Act 1995, and as India celebrates its 58th Independence, disabled people remain prisoners in their homes, simply due to lack of access, in buildings and transport, and unfriendly environment. Chapter II on The Central Coordination Committee (para 8 (2) (f)) in The Disability Act, clearly stipulates that the Committee should, “Take such other steps to ensure barrier free environment in public places, work places, public utilities, schools and other institutions.” The law clearly states that public transport, including trains, buses and aircraft, should allow easy access to the disabled; sound signals should be installed at traffic lights; and pavements should be made wheelchair accessible.

Chapter V on Education (para 39) directs appropriate Governments to prepare a comprehensive education scheme providing for transport facilities to children with disabilities, removal of architectural barriers from schools, colleges, or other institutions. Yet nothing much has been done to date.

Delhi, being the Capital, is perceived by people as a role model, and often innovations find their way to other parts of India. But Delhi continues to remain inaccessible. None of its transport systems – be it bus stops, railway stations, buses, trains, or buildings including schools, universities, offices, banks, restaurants, cinema halls, or even public parks are accessible to disabled people. In fact, Delhi’s pubic transport is non-existent for all practical purposes, as disabled people cannot even think of boarding buses or trains as the height difference is insurmountable, not to mention the space inside and the seating arrangements.

When Prof. Stephen Hawking came to India in 2001, there was a huge uproar on the issue. Overnight ramps were constructed; a disabled friendly vehicle was made. Reality hit hard. But the lesson seems to have already been forgotten by all authorities concerned. Delhi got two disabled-friendly Delhi Transport Corporation (D.T.C.) buses on the eve of the sixth International Abilympics in November 2003, complete with hydraulic lift and all other facilities. But they were later donated by the Ministry of Social Justice & Empowerment to two N.G.Os in Delhi.

Shouldn’t the Government have been thinking in terms of plying the two disabled friendly buses on Delhi roads to begin with? Shouldn’t disability access have become an important part of any planning by now?

As P.R. Mehta, Former President, Council of Architecture, New Delhi, succinctly puts it, “Cities are being planned by people between the ages 20-60 and they are planning for themselves. This is the problem. There is no sensitivity to the fact that there are young and old, non disabled and disabled.” The key concern, he states, is that, “The city and buildings that exist, including public areas, are not accessible. But there is no programme to convert them to make them accessible. How are they going to be addressed?” He says, over a period of time, we can make all things accessible including signages, and audio signals at places. “But though people have been talking of changes, and two years ago we had prepared a Plan to make Delhi accessible, nothing has happened,” Mehta emphasises.

Picture of steps leading to a Delhi college

What exactly is access? Salil Chaturvedi, a wheelchair user since 1984, after being paralysed below the waist in an accident, and an avid sportsman who has represented India in wheelchair lawn tennis Open in Japan and Australia, says, “Doing simple things, even as basic as buying a tooth brush is a challenge here.” He recalls his trip to Melbourne, stating, “It opened my eyes to what freedom really could be. It was completely accessible, with cuts in the footpath along the way. And there was freedom of choice as one could go and get what one needed.” As for Delhi, he says, “It is far from that, and dependence level increases. The very thought of even going to a library is challenging, as most of them are inaccessible. If there is accessibility, one could get more out of life.”

Ashwini Kumar Agarwal, Joint Secretary, National Association of the Blind, New Delhi, projects a different angle of the problem. “Everything should be accessible and a lot of inputs are required for the visually impaired. Even footpaths are difficult to navigate, with rods, wires, etc. lying around. As for crossings, having automatic signals are fine. But orientation should be given to blind people on the use of push button signals. People should also be sensitised.”

“Delhi is the most glaring example of difficulty in crossing roads. We have been asking for push button signals for a long time. They are very useful for slow learners and people with learning disabilities. When are they going to come?” laments Asha Mehra, Swavalamban.

A universal barrier-free environment is a dream of all Indians. And a few have been lobbying for it for some time now. They would like to create and maintain environments in which all people can participate in ways that are equitable, dignified, maximise independence, and are safe for all. Obstacles of any kind affect the lives of people to a great extent, and it is not difficult to imagine the plight of millions of disabled people who face hurdles at every single step.

The fact is that the problems of access are not limited to disabled people, and a variety of people encounter the same problems, such as those recuperating from an ailment or have suffered fractures, pregnant women, people handling heavy baggage, small kids, those suffering from arthritis or cardiovascular problems, or elderly people with failing eyesight or health.

So when we talk about visible signage, easy parking, ramps and so on, it is not just the disabled people who benefit. Everyone does. This is the universal barrier-free environment the disability sector is striving for.

In an effort to create awareness and bring changes at the policy level by getting disability addressed in all the new efforts of the Government to improve the public buildings and spaces, and the transport system, National Centre for Promotion of Employment for Disabled People (N.C.P.E.D.P.) is launching a year-long ‘National Campaign for a Barrier Free India’ on 15th August 2005, India’s Independence Day. One hopes that this Campaign will go a long way in fulfilling the dreams of the disabled people of this country in leading a full and free life.

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