Issuing a certificate to a scheme or a project of being accessible is an authority that only the Government must have. The role of an activist is merely to bring such cases into the notice of the government, says Shivani Gupta, Programme Manager with Corporate Social Responsibility Programme of Jindal Saw Ltd, in conversation with Aqeel Qureshi.
1. Please tell us about yourself, particularly about your engagement with the issue of disability and access?
I am a wheelchair user for the past 14 years after a spinal injury. The approach of charity and discrimination that I witnessed towards disabled people motivated me to join the disability movement and fight for the rights of disabled people.
My engagement with access began with the opportunity to attend UNESCAP’s Training of Trainers for the Promotion of Non-Handicapping Environment in the year 2000. It was an eye opener for me and helped me realise my niche area for work.
Equipped with the training, I conducted access audits of a few government buildings. I also conducted an awareness programme in collaboration with the Office of Chief Commissioner for Persons with Disabilities. As a part of the programme I also co-authored a training manual ‘Planning a Barrier Free Environment’. Soon I felt the need for further training, and professional exposure to make greater and more informed contribution in the area of access.
I therefore enrolled for a two year National Higher Diploma in Architecture Technology to understand better architectural design and the limitations faced by architects during the course of their routine work. Subsequently, I did M.Sc. in ‘Inclusive Environment: Design & Management’ from the University of Reading in United Kingdom.
I have now taken up the job of Programme Manager at Svayam, a Corporate Social Responsibility Programme of Jindal Saw Ltd. We aim to work towards enhancing self reliance amongst people with disabilities through promotion of Inclusive Environment.
2. What is the concept of Universal Design and Barrier-free Environment? Is there a difference between the two?
Barrier-free Environment concerns the needs of disabled people. It essentially is about making the environment – both, external and internal - more accessible and useable by them. All its design features are formulated to removing environmental handicaps to benefit people with disabilities.
Universal Design on the other hand talks about design of the environment or a product that is universally accessible to all irrespective of gender, age, size or disability. It is a much wider concept as compared to Barrier Free Environment, as it benefits the entire society. Universal Design specifications are designed keeping the two extremes in the range of users (for example a counter height will be designed keeping in mind the tallest and the shortest user). Therefore, needs of people with disabilities and the elderly are automatically incorporated. The seven basic principles of universal design are as follows:
Equitable use for people with diverse abilities;
Flexibility in use to accommodate a wide range of individuals;
Simple to use, design easy to understand, regardless of the user’s experience, knowledge, language skills or concentration level;
Perceptible Information design communicates necessary information to the user regardless of ambient conditions or user’s sensory ability;
Tolerance for Error minimises hazards;
Low Physical Efforts used efficiently & comfortably with minimum fatigue;
Size & Space for Approach and Use appropriate size & shape provided irrespective of user’s body size, posture or mobility.
3. How would you assess India’s awareness to the issue? Are urban planners and architects in India aware and technically equipped to address the need for access?
A survey conducted as a part of my M.Sc. revealed that 63% of the practising architects had barrier free access for persons with disabilities as part of their education curriculum; where as an interview with the Head of Planning Department, at the School of Planning and Architecture, showed that they did not cover the issue at all. Surely the present environment is a witness to the fact that planners and architects are not aware of the issue in India.
Let’s take the example of Delhi. We have adopted the barrier free features in our building by-laws making it mandatory to implement them in all new constructions but still everyday new buildings are coming up without access features for the disabled. This says enough about their awareness level.
Inclusive Environment or barrier free environment are not a part of the education curriculum at architecture or planning institutes. Students out of personal interest may incorporate this issue in their projects.
Providing accessibility is a technical issue to be tackled by professionals. I definitely believe that incorporating the concept at the education level is very important. Otherwise we cannot look forward to much change in the future except of course getting half baked solutions from people half aware about the issue.
4. Delhi Metro has been rated as being universally accessible by some. But a recent audit by National Centre for Promotion of Employment for Disabled People has shown that the good work that was visible in the first phase has been discontinued. Do you feel that the celebrations by the disability sector were premature?
Unfortunately, I have not travelled in the Delhi Metro. Therefore I will not be able to comment on its accessibility. But I understand that accessibility is an evolving process. There is always a little more that needs to be done to improve access. Therefore unless the Metro has been tried and tested by people with a range of disabilities, it may be difficult to comment on how usable it may be for people with more severe or multiple disabilities.
Taking this in account I do believe that any celebrations will be rather premature, especially when only a small part of the project is complete. It may be fair to say that a particular station is accessible but commenting on the whole project even before it has been fully completed will be unfortunate.
5. With disability and access being non-priority areas for the Government, is it appropriate for disability activists to issue individual certificates to various schemes and projects? Is it not important to engage experts in such assessments?
Issuing a certificate to a scheme or a project of being accessible is an authority that only the Government must have. The role of an activist is merely to bring such cases into the notice of the government. Definitely the certificate needs to be issued following a strict assessment criteria that involves not just physical access but many other issues. Assessment itself cannot be a one or two day visit. Rather it has to be based on a study conducted over a period of time of various users.
6. Is it not the State’s responsibility to take serious steps to create technical infrastructure and a professional pool? Is it fair to expect that only disabled people should come up with answers to planning blunders done by the Government?
Definitely it is duty of the State. There is no ambiguity in the fact that disabled people have to be provided an inclusive and barrier-free environment. But definitely disabled people are not expected to turn into architects or planners overnight. Disabled people need to be aware and advocate these issues. The Government will without doubt have to create a pool of professionals, provide technical standards, supporting policies to create a promising future. Some issues that according to me need to be urgently addressed by the Government are:
Creation of a technical body comprising of architects, planners, council of architects, transport industry, TCPO, ASI, NGOs etc to advice on matters relating to promotion, certification, creation etc of Inclusive Environment.
Making access studies mandatory in architecture and planning curriculum.
Encourage research on Inclusive Environments.
Draft appropriate policies for monitoring implementation.
Review the By-Laws and the CPWD guidelines and make sure they are adopted by all States and Union Territories.