It is not so much about developing barrier-free architecture as it is about barrier-free becoming a way of life, instead of a compulsive gesture
Words: Revati Rajwade
It is the most natural part of our lives – as we alight from the train and hurry towards the steps leading us to the foot over bridge. On other occasions when we visit malls, we nonchalantly follow the signage’s and pass several shops and perhaps an atrium to reach the washrooms.
However, the simplest of such daily activities prove to be terrible hurdles for thousands of differently-abled people. While our only thought is to climb the railway steps as fast as possible before a scuffle ensures due to over-crowding, wheelchair bound people have to worry about how to reach to the foot-over bridge in the first place.
While we are briskly walking towards washrooms the blind have to wonder about how they would be able to find it on such a huge floor plate with no tactile guidance whatsoever.
This kind of architecture can be termed non-inclusive as it proves to be a hurdle in people’s lives and forces them to be dependent on others for assistance. Architecture is primarily for people and this comprises the broad spectrum of people of all age-groups, gender and ability.
Even if it causes discomfort to one of its users the design is bound to be faulty in some way or the other. Architecture should be such that there should be no instance where a person is reminded of his or her lack of ability.
Hence, I find the term barrier-free more appropriate than disable-friendly. It speaks only of the architectural service to be provided and conveys clearly that the entire onus is on the design and construction.
It speaks nothing about the ability or rather the lack of it, of its user.
Also, it does away with the general perception that inclusive architecture is a requisite of the disabled. Barrier free architecture aims at creating a comfortable environment for everyone such as pregnant women, dwarf-sized people, the aged, mentally and physically disabled, obese and many more.
Thus, it is not merely restricted to building ramps and railings as it comprises detailed nuances like appropriate zoning, use of materials, the range of natural light and several more.
Since the past several years there have been various organisations who strive for making all public places easily accessible. A heartening example of this is the Red Ramp project under which the Kiri beach in Goa was made accessible for differently-abled persons so that they could visit on their own terms.
With this view, one organisation built a temporary ramp that enabled people on wheelchairs to access the beach on their wheelchair. Though this was temporary it was a great initiative and thought.
Efforts are also being made at the national level to create suitable infrastructure which would cater to all citizens. The Department of Empowerment of Persons with Disabilities and Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment have formulated the Accessible India Campaign (Sugamya Bharat Abhiyan).
This is a nation-wide campaign for achieving universal accessibility. The campaign targets three separate verticals for achieving universal accessibility namely the built up environment, transportation eco-system and information-communication eco-system.
The department has instructed State Governments to identify 100 public buildings in the metropolitan area, which if made fully accessible would have the highest impact. This is the first step towards the transformation of all utilitarian buildings of our country.
A striking example of an all-inclusive building design of an Institute can be observed at the International Institute for Social Entrepreneurs (IISE) in Trivandrum, Kerala. It offers a training programme in social entrepreneurship. What sets it apart from other institutes is that it embraces participants who have overcome significant life challenges ranging from vision impairment or any other form of disability, poverty, discrimination and exploitation.
The site housing the built forms is a linear strip of land where the zoning is convoluted so as to facilitate easy accessibility and circulation within the institute. Several features have been added and chalked out during the planning process so as to make the place disable–friendly with a primary focus on visual impairment since IISE functions under the banner ‘Braille without borders’.
Some of the thoughtful incorporations in design are that every room has a distinct texture and is of a different size and shape so as to enable the blind to easily identify the area. The academic block has a courtyard which acts as a landmark for the visually impaired.
Use of different textured tiles and materials in the landscape and walkways help identifying the paths easily. For example, the main circulation zone has a concrete paving while the one at the amphitheatre uses china mosaic. The interiors have vitrified tiles. There is a change in material – a stone–tile pattern before the stairs which provides a subtle warning before the change in site levels.
The olfactory senses have been elegantly utilised by planting different scented flowering plants throughout the site. Yellow coloured bands have been used along the paths so that partially impaired people can differentiate contrast in colour and be guided to walk along the path with greater comfort. This design is the brainchild of an organisation called COSTFORD which creates exemplary open-brick and cost-effective structures.
Says Architect Parul Kumtha, who has been practising and rooting for accessible design for over a decade: “Barrier Free and Accessible Universal Design is the right of every citizen. All public places: educational premises, places for transportation, public buildings like courts and police stations, places for recreation, etc. must be accessible to all sections of society, irrespective to their disabilities, socio-cultural backgrounds, age or gender.”
Awareness about barrier free architecture and its dire necessity is spreading rapidly in India. “Recently, we organised a workshop on this subject where the estimated participants were 50 but we saw an attendance of around 110 delegates,” adds Kumtha.
Over the years, she has worked on projects at St. Xavier’s College, Reserve Bank of India main building, General Post Office, National Gallery of Modern art, Indira Gandhi Institute of Developmental Research, besides prototypes for road crossings, bus-stops and making public toilets accessible.
Her firm, Nature-Nurture Architects and Planners is an empanelled access auditor with the Access India Campaign, Ministry of Social Empowerment and Justice, Government of India.
As we can see through the cited examples, a lot is already being done to improvise on the past negligence but the road ahead is still very long and turbulent. Amongst the various stakeholders, architects should play a pivotal role in bringing about a sea change in the attitude of people and the language of building.
For this purpose, architects should be provided concise training courses which introduce them to the needs and difficulties of a person with any kind of disability. Most of the built areas have faulty and non-complying designs owing to lack of information and awareness.
The simplest example of this is that toilet signages are designed as backlit silhouettes of a man and woman but for an autistic person, this signage is extremely difficult to comprehend.
Indications have to be simple such that they can be understood by all. Another example is the creation of levels in a landscape which is known to be a fascinating design concept for every architect.
Several housing complexes have this play of contours and steps in the play areas which lead to kids getting injured while running or playing. Hence, the foremost necessity is to educate budding architects in architecture schools and then proceed towards other supporting activities such as creation of norms, conducting workshops to educate people from the construction industry etc.
Finally, the journey is not as much about constructing barrier free architecture as much as it is about barrier free becoming a way of life instead of a compulsive gesture.
Revati is an Architect and Interior Designer by profession and a writer by passion. She can be reached at: email@example.com