More often than not, authorities limit accessibility initiatives to poorly-constructed ramps, forgetting a large number of persons with psycho-social disabilities who are sensitive to things such as sound or smell.

A person in blue sits on wheelchairRepresentative image
Features TNM Follow-Up Friday, December 16, 2022 - 13:24

December is the follow-up month at TNM where we go back to headlines of the past for a status update. In this series, we strive to bring focus back to promises made by governments, revisit official investigations that should have been completed by now and exhume issues of public interest that lost steam over time.

A notice inside an ATM counter at Vazhuthacaud in Thiruvananthapuram says, “We are unable to provide the ramp facility [for persons with disabilities] either due to the local authorities not granting permission or the construction not being feasible.” The ATM is in the basement of the building, down a flight of stairs. The notice also provides links to the bank’s other ATMs that contain ramps. If you ask a person with disability or groups that work for persons with disabilities, they will say that this is not in the least surprising. Most public places in Kerala continue to be inaccessible for persons with disabilities.

“Persons with disabilities make up 7% of India’s population. There are 1.5 crore people in India who are blind. Yet, progress in making places accessible for persons with disabilities has been slow on the government’s side,” says Sunil Mathew, secretary of the Society for Rehabilitation of the Visually Challenged (SRVC), a 20-year-old NGO. He mentions the small changes that came through in the last few years — builders making lifts accessible or using braille on lift buttons. Even then, accessibility remains partial. For instance, such places may not announce the floor numbers on lifts, so blind persons can’t know when they’ve reached the right floor.

“Even currency notes are not accessible. We have been fighting two right to information cases for this. The reply we received from the Reserve Bank of India is to not wait for the money to be accessible because it is all digital now. But how many people have digital access? What is the percentage of people who can own a smartphone, let alone download an app and use it?” Sunil adds. SRVC has a blind football team, and the NGO works in 23 states. From his experience, Sunil notes that accessibility is bad everywhere. 

One of the most visible changes in new buildings or renovated old ones are ramps. Though this is a step in the right direction, there are often hassles preventing persons with disabilities from using them. “There will be some sort of blockage. You can find objects such as trolleys dumped on the ramp in small malls or grocery stores. Each time you need to use it, you will need to request for access,” says Krishnakumar, founder of the NGO Mobility in Dystrophy (MIND). If it is not objects that are blocking the way, it will be a closed door at the end of the ramp. “They say that they will remove it if you ask, but why should you have to ask?” says Suchitra, special educator of 40 years, and parent of a person with disability. 

Another issue with ramps is the improper angle at which they are built, which makes it difficult for the person pushing the wheelchair, Suchitra says. The person with disability will inevitably need assistance, their independence once again gone for a toss.

Ramps, even the ones built at improper angles, are rare in public places like government offices and banks. Most of the time, they are not situated on the ground floor of two-storeyed buildings without lifts. The Ernakulam public library is one such example, located on the first floor of a building, providing no way for a person with disability to access it.

Considering persons with psycho-social disabilities

More often than not, authorities limit their accessibility initiatives to ramps and wheelchair access, forgetting a large number of persons who are sensitive to things such as sound or smell. “Accessibility does not mean just wheelchairs and ramps. My 22-year-old son is autistic. He is sensitive to sound. Many children with autism are sensitive to light, sound, or smell,”says Sivadas AK, parent of a person with autism, and founder of Autism Club, Thiruvananthapuram. “It would be great if hotels and restaurants could have a separate area for persons with such sensitivities. For instance, the smell of cooking food can agitate them,” he adds. 

The issue of inaccessibility is not something specific to Kerala, says Tony Kurian, a blind PhD scholar in sociology at IIT Bombay. “It is the general story. Accessibility is hardly there anywhere in India. Concerns of persons with disabilities haven’t ever been given due importance,” he says.

Suchitra lists out some of the basic issues — such as the lack of pavements, with the difference in height between the road and pavement sometimes going up to one foot without chamfering (slope), making it difficult for persons with disabilities to navigate the roads. “They put marker tiles which help blind persons know which way to go. In pavements in Kochi, marker tiles are often blocked by a lamp or a tree, or it is extremely close to a wall and there will be vehicles parked there, or vendors doing their business. A lot of money is spent on these things without much thought,” she says.

Restroom access

When Meera U Menon, a person with disability, faced difficulties accessing the toilet at the Indira Gandhi National Open University (IGNOU) campus in Ernakulam two years ago, she took it up with the authorities. However, once she completed her PhD in October, she has not been able to check on the progress. “I managed to find public toilets later on or stop at restaurants while travelling. I currently work in InfoPark and do not travel much,” she says. Meera’s account makes it clear that access to toilets and restrooms are still a huge problem. In an earlier story,TNM had reported on the difficulties of accessing restrooms even in educational institutions. The situation hasn’t changed much, Suchitra says. 

It is when a person with disability decides to travel that all the practical difficulties hit them in the face. One can’t take a bus or train without help. For instance, Suchitra points out that at Ernakulam South railway station, even though there is an escalator, entering the next platform would still require going down a few steps. Low floor buses also don’t serve much use, as they often stop far from the curb where alighting or boarding a bus is easier for a person on a wheelchair. 

Kochi Metro an exception

The only exception is the Kochi metro, according to both Sunil and Tony. “The metro uses tactile floor tiles. Even then, the question that remains is how do you reach the metro from the road,” Sunil says. Tony, who is also an activist, adds that it is important to understand that we have limited resources. Hence, he would not ask for 100% accessibility, but at least the bare minimum should be implemented.

“The situation has improved. We have tactile tiles in metro stations and some pavements. There is a walkway in Panampilly Nagar in Kochi with tactile ground. Local buses now have the practice of announcing the next stop. That was originally done for migrant labourers but it has also come to benefit persons with disabilities. So yes, the system is moving in the right direction through conscious and unconscious efforts, but the pace is too slow,” Tony says.  

What needs to be done

The state does not lack a budget or sufficient number of welfare programmes for persons with disabilities. Sivadas says that out of the 63 programmes of the Social Justice Department, 23 are aimed for persons with disabilities. “Here too, it is mostly physical, and not psycho-social, disabilities that are considered. We need a separate department for persons with disabilities, as it concerns a large number of people,” he says.

Seema Lal, a disability rights activist who holds a PhD in mental health and disability, says that the basic issue is the absence of persons with disabilities in policymaking. “Also, it is important that policies are implemented, not just made. Thirdly, there is no easy access to grievance redressal mechanisms,” she says.

This is one recurring concern raised by most persons with disability — who do you go and make your complaints to. There is the disability commissioner, yes, but he has limitations. Local self-government bodies should instead audit it, and there should be a responsible officer to make sure the policies on paper are also implemented on the ground, Sivadas suggests. Krishnakumar has a similar suggestion, “It will be good if an authority conducts checks every six months.”

Suchitra is of the opinion that there has to be mandates and punishments. “Look at how we are strict about helmets and seatbelts. There are laws and awareness about accessibility issues, but there is no consequence for defaulters. Whoever is in charge should be pulled up,” she says.

Earlier, Sunil Mathew used to strongly believe that awareness is the first step. Now, he believes that stricter implementation with penalties should come first and foremost. Creating awareness should start in schools and among younger groups, and then among the general public. “We also need campaigns and advocacy groups fighting for this,” he says.

Tony says that there are a lot of existing guidelines for making public buildings, roads, and transport accessible. “The point is that the government, or the private body doing it on behalf of the government, should follow the guidelines. No one deliberately makes this so difficult. The reason we don’t have accessibility is because it is often a forgotten thing or a second thought.” He reiterates that it would be a good start if at least the bare minimum is done.

Sivadas reminds us again that the question of accessibility should not be limited to physical accessibility. Even as the state fails to make physical spaces accessible to persons with disabilities, several other ableistic practices, such as those in education, too need to be overthrown. “For the last several years, we have been fighting for admission of children with autism to regular schools. There is no access to education, no access to employment. We should also talk about access to opportunities,” he says. 

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