ENSURING ACCESSIBILITY FOR THE DISABLED

Shivani Gupta, founder AccessAbility, who got disabled from her shoulder downwards following an accident in 1992, has taken on the challenge of ensuring greater accessibility for those with disabilities in public and private places in India.

By N.B. Rao

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“Obviously, because of my disability, I need assistance. But I have always tried to overcome the limitations of my condition and lead as full a life as possible. I have traveled the world, from the Antarctic to zero gravity. Perhaps one day I will go into space.”

That was leading British physicist Stephen Hawking in an interview with Claudia Dreifus, a renowned science writer, in the New York Times, in 2011.

Dr Hawking lives in the UK, where – as in most western countries – millions of disabled people are able to lead productive lives thanks to the excellent infrastructure and accessibility to government and private buildings,railway and metro stations, shopping malls, restaurants, hotels, hospitals, academic institutions, etc.

Unfortunately in India, we still have a long way to go before the disabled can access public space as most of the buildings and structures are not built keeping in mind the requirements of the disabled.

Says Shivani Gupta, founder, AccessAbility, a leading access and universal design consultancy: “India has a long way to go, indeed a very long way, before it comes at par with the west in terms of accessibility for the disabled.”

Gupta, who suffered a spinal cord injury – which rendered her disabled from the shoulder downwards – after a car accident in Delhi in 1992, says governments both at the centre and in the states should adopt accessibility as a feature in their by-laws.

“Anything that is newly constructed – buildings, infrastructure, transport and public facilities – should not be approved if it does not have proper accessibility for the disabled,” she asserts. “Government agencies need to be more stringent in terms of implementing projects. They must consider setting up accessibility offices and impose penalties on companies that do not provide such facilities.”

Shivani Gupta is passionate about the need for accessibility for the disabled. But this should not just be in terms of physical accessibility such as ramps, lifts, lighting levels, colour contrasts, height and width, but access also in terms of different elements taking into consideration those with sensory or cognitive impairment.

More importantly, the staff interacting with the public should also be sensitised to the needs of the disabled, she notes. “Staff are often rude and do not help the disabled,” she points out. Similarly, if a passport office has become disabled-friendly, the authorities must also look at the website of the department – can the visually handicapped use the site?

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Shivani’s ‘AccessAbility’ journey began almost a decade after the accident that left her disabled. In 2000, she went to Bangkok for a United Nations training programme on ‘non-handicapping environment for persons with disability and the elderly.’ It was a rigorous, 15-day-long training workshop, where she first realised the importance of accessibility.

“Before the workshop, I never questioned the lack of accessibility. I took it upon myself to manage with whatever I could,” she explains. “But at the workshop I realised my disability was not my fault – the environment was disabling me further.” The external environment can be made accessible so that people like her are not excluded from leading a normal life, she realised.

Back in India, she felt motivated and organised a series of training programmes for government officials across the country on the concept of non-handicapping environment and on accessibility.

Shivani, who was at the time working for the Indian Spinal Injuries Centre, Delhi, quit her job and did a two-year diploma course in architecture. She then undertook a post-graduate course in inclusive environment at the University of Redding in the UK, specialising in accessibility.

“In 2006, I returned to India and set up AccessAbility, as a consultancy,” says Gupta. The firm has pioneered the accessibility movement in India and has also introduced access consultancy as a professional service, helping bridge the knowledge gap in the construction and design industries.

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Her firm provides a spectrum of services including access appraisal and audit, produces implementation strategies, conducts disability awareness and sensitisation workshops and also provides accessibility training. Clients have included several hotel chains including the ITC Welcomgroup and the prestigious Indian School of Business, Hyderabad.

Gupta is also pursuing a PhD programme – Making community support services available to persons with disability – from the University of Maastricht in the Netherlands.

“If you want a disabled person to live independently, the three key requirements include: accessibility, assisted technology and devices and support staff and services,” explains Gupta.

Originally from Delhi, Gupta recently moved to Puttaparthi, a town in Andhra Pradesh, which is about 130 km from Bengaluru, and is the birthplace of Satya Sai Baba and home to Prasanthi Nilayam, the famous ashram. “My father lives here,” says Gupta. “And since this is a semi-urban area, I get good access to disabled people in rural areas.”

The founder of AccessAbility admits there is growing awareness in India about the need to meet the accessibility requirements of the disabled. The ministry of social justice and empowerment has also launched its flagship ‘Accessible India’ campaign to improve accessibility for the disabled.

“But the fact is that the campaign will only touch urban areas,” she points out. “Most of the disabled in India live in the rural areas.”

The campaign also does not mandate that anything new that is constructed should provide for accessibility to the disabled. Such accessibility is a requirement in the building by-laws of different states, but if such a provision is not there, it gets sidelined.

There are also a multiplicity of rules and regulations; the ministry of urban development has a few guidelines, the national building code of the Bureau of Indian Standards has a few. But implementation of these regulations and codes is patchy, as there are no post-occupancy checks conducted by the agencies to see whether the rules have been implemented, she bemoans.

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Ambitious projects such as the Jawaharlal Nehru Urban Renewal Mission, which had been rolled out a few years ago, have doled out billions of rupees for transport undertakings, but they have not mandated accessibility in the vehicles.

“And if you look at inter-city and inter-state transport – both public and private sector – I have not come across a single bus that provides access to the disabled,” says Gupta.Sadly, even in architectural colleges, universal designing of accessibility is not one of the key subjects, she notes. Consequently, it is not surprising that a World Bank report found that just five to seven per cent of disabled persons who need some form of assisted technology or device had access to them.

Gupta has struggled and persevered over the past nearly 25 years in a bid to ensure that the disabled are able to lead better lives and that institutions and individuals realise their needs and provide support. There is still a long way to go, but Gupta is hopeful that change will gradually come. Ultimately, there is nothing more disabling for persons with disabilities than society’s failure to accept and include them as part of the mainstream, she says.

Nithin has extensive experience in reporting, writing and editing. His forte is politics, business, lifestyle & international affairs. He can be reached on nithin@urbanvaastu.com

NO LOOKING BACK

FIVE years after she suffered spinal injuries in an accident, Shivani Gupta, who was working as a counselor at the Indian Spinal Injuries Centre in Delhi, met Vikas, who was an occupational therapist at the facility.

Over the next few years, both underwent training in inclusive and non-handicapping environments and in 2006 established AccessAbility. “We were really close,” recalls Gupta. “But I was disabled and older to him, and we couldn’t get married for a long time.”

In 2009, however, they finally got married. Unfortunately, a second tragedy unfolded in Gupta’s life: on the way to a holiday in Manali, the car they were travelling in met with an accident. Her father-in-law died instantly, while Vikas succumbed to his injuries a week later.

“I suffered a few fractures,” says Gupta. “Those were really dark and depressing days for me. I was bed-ridden for nearly eight months and struggled to put my life together again.”

She then decided to write her autobiography. ‘No Looking Back,’ is an inspiring memoir that showcases the indomitability of the human spirit in the face of overwhelming odds.