Notice: Disabled access, many obstacles to overcome

Launched with great fanfare in 2015, the “Accessible India” campaign was based on three vertical sectors: the built environment, transport and the information and communication technology (ICT) ecosystem. However, today, seven years after the launch of the campaign, little has changed on the ground. This is evident from the humiliation suffered by a wheelchair user, Shrishti, when she sought to visit a restaurant in Gurgaon a week ago. A few years earlier, a disability rights activist, Nipun Malhotra, also in a wheelchair like Shrishti, was refused entry to a pub in New Delhi. Thanks to social media, these two cases have received some attention, but countless more go unreported every day.

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In both cases, it was not the physical inaccessibility of the premises that led to the denial of access, but the preconceived ideas of the staff operating these premises who assumed that the presence of wheelchair users would “disturb” the clients. Although staff behavior is reprehensible, their attitudes must be seen in the broader context of social treatment of people with disabilities and systemic ableism.

Disabled people being largely invisible, arouse a certain curiosity when seen in such places and this is more pronounced when the impairment is much more severe and does not seem to fit the ‘norm’. The reasons for invisibility are many. In addition to stigma and various taboos as well as negative attitudes and mindsets, the issue of accessibility is a barrier for people with disabilities in using public spaces and various services and services, including but not limited to limit, educational institutions, public transport, restaurants, shops, theaters, banks, computer services (information technology), etc.

Since people with disabilities are not a homogeneous group, their access needs are diverse. Therefore, although a properly constructed ramp can provide accessibility to the point of entry for a wheelchair user, the elderly and those with reduced mobility, it does not make the building fully accessible. If the place to visit is on a higher floor, does the building have an accessible elevator? whether the venue has accessible toilets; whether it has braille signs, whether there is a sign language interpreter available, are all questions that need to be answered.

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The fact that we are far from meeting the five-year deadline mandate set by the Disability Rights Act 2016 is very evident. On December 3, 2021, the President of India left the stage of Vigyan Bhawan to present awards to a few wheelchair users during the National Disability Awards. The prestigious site, maintained by the Central Department of Public Works, does not have a ramp. While others would have interpreted it as the president’s generosity, the honorees felt humiliated to have been denied the opportunity to be on stage.

During my stay in Geneva in 2019, I was amazed by the respect and courtesy given to people with disabilities. If there was a wheelchair user waiting at a bus stop, the bus driver (there is no driver) would open the collapsible ramp to let the passenger on and do the same when getting off. Despite the widespread rhetoric about inclusion, this kind of dignified treatment remains a distant dream in our context.

It should be noted that by way of contrast, as recently as January 2022, the tender for 5585 electric buses by Convergence Energy Services Limited (on behalf of various transport companies) does not meet the standards of accessibility as well as the mandates of the Disability Rights Act 2016. In Delhi, while the Delhi Transport Corporation (DTC) only purchases low-floor buses, the buses under the cluster program of the same DTC are standard floor!

In June 2021, the President of India boarded a special lounge from Safdarjung Railway Station in Delhi to travel to Kanpur. What stands out from the visit is the use of temporary ramps both at Safdarjung as well as at Kanpur railway stations for the embarkation and disembarkation of the President and his entourage. But when that will become a reality for ordinary elderly and disabled passengers, no one knows.

Moreover, with the rapid pace of technological advancements, a host of services are now coming online. However, many of these websites use captchas that are not compatible with screen readers, excluding visually impaired users. Television and audiovisual media are largely inaccessible to the hearing and visually impaired, although there is a range of technologies for closed captioning and audio description.

While the challenges are immense, the response has been far from adequate. Inadequate budget allocations are a major impediment to achieving the goals set by the Accessible India campaign itself, let alone overcoming prejudice and raising awareness.

In conclusion, the famous British physicist Stephen Hawking once said: “Disabled people are vulnerable because of the many barriers they face: behavioural, physical and financial. Tackling these barriers is within our reach…..But most importantly, tackling these barriers will unlock the potential of so many people who have so much to contribute to the world.

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(Muralidharan Vishwanath is Secretary General of the National Platform for Disability Rights, a Delhi-based non-profit organization working on the rights of persons with disabilities)

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this article are the personal opinions of the author. The facts and opinions appearing in the article do not reflect the views of NDTV and NDTV assumes no responsibility or liability for them.

NDTV – Dettol have been working for a clean and healthy India since 2014 through the The Banega Swachh India initiative, led by Campaign Ambassador Amitabh Bachchan. The campaign aims to highlight the interdependence of humans and the environment, and of humans on each other, with an emphasis on One Health, One Planet, One Future – Leaving No One Behind. It emphasizes the need to care for and consider the health of everyone in India – especially vulnerable communities – the LGBTQ population, indigenous peoples, various Indian tribes, ethnic and linguistic minorities, people with disabilities, migrants, geographically distant populations, gender and sexual minorities. With the current Covid-19 pandemicthe need for WASH (The water, Sanitation and Hygiene) is reaffirmed because handwashing is one of the ways to prevent coronavirus infection and other diseases. The campaign will continue to raise awareness on the same with emphasizing the importance of nutrition and health care for women and children, tackling malnutritionmental well-being, self-care, science and health, adolescent health and gender awareness. Along with the health of people, the campaign realized the need to also take care of the health of the ecosystem. Our environment is fragile due to human activity, which not only overexploits available resources, but also generates immense pollution due to the use and extraction of these resources. The imbalance has also resulted in an immense loss of biodiversity which has caused one of the greatest threats to human survival – climate change. It has now been described as a “code red for humanity”. The campaign will continue to cover issues such as air pollution, Waste Management, plastic ban, manual scan and sanitation workers and menstrual hygiene. Banega Swasth India will also advance the dream of Swasth Bharat, the campaign believes that only a clean Swachh or India where bathroom are used and without open defecation (ODF) status obtained under the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan launched by Prime Minister Narendra Modi in 2014 can eradicate diseases like diahorrea and the country can become a healthy Swasth or India.

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