Why a lack of accessibility for people with disabilities should concern you

Last Updated: Wed, Mar 13, 2013 16:46 hrs

Last month, the Union Railway Minister unveiled a Budget that proposed some truly grand measures to make rail travel more accessible for persons with disabilities. These measures included braille stickers, wheel-chair friendly coaches, more elevators and escalators at railway stations among others. Would these measures make rail travel completely accessible?

No, not really, as disability activist Javed Abidi explained in an article in The Hindu, but without doubt a step in the right direction. One would have hoped that the Railway Budget which spoke of accessibility once inside a railway station would have been complemented by a Union Budget which spoke up for a barrier-free environment outside of the stations.

Instead, the Budget announced a slight hike in allocations to the recently-created Disability Affairs ministry (Rs 100 crore to Rs 110 crore) and left it at that. Why is it such a disappointment that the Finance Minister failed to focus on disability?

Well, for one about 2 per cent of this country’s population lives with disabilities (source: 2001 census) and while the Persons with Disabilities Act of 1995 mandated a barrier-free environment, it did not mandate a timeline for implementation or penalties for failing to implement a barrier-free environment.

Now why is accessibility important to a person living with a physical disability? Access is tied to livelihood and independence. In India, poverty and disability co-exist in a vicious cycle – a vast majority of disabled people are born into poverty and their disability tends to keep them in poverty. Access is practically the only way to break that cycle. Literacy, one of the routes out of poverty, is not high – the rate is only 49 per cent against the national average of 64.8 per cent (source: 2001 census).

Access is without doubt a key factor in this. When schools lack ramps or bathrooms that are disabled-friendly, it becomes that much harder for a family to make the decision to send their child to school, especially if it will mean a parent, sibling or relative accompanying them to carry them into classrooms, and take them to the bathroom.

If a disabled child does get an education, what about work? Close your eyes and picture a young adult with a disability navigating your city, village or town. Are their pavements that a person on crutches or in a wheelchair can use easily? Are the pavements sloped, even and unencroached?

A disabled friend once told me he nearly fainted with the exertion of walking on a city pavement. Can the person climb on to a bus? Rajiv Rajan and Dhanasekar, disability rights activists, were famously charged for bringing their wheelchairs on to bus, which also started moving before Dhana could get on. Can the person enter a movie theatre, government office (except for a few) or place of business without assistance?

Imagine your daily work route from the perspective of a person with disability, on a budget. Disability activists I know regularly spend money they cannot afford travelling by autos because affordable public transport is not accessible to them. They could make it if someone always travelled with them to carry them onto and off of buses but bear in mind that a caregiver or attender travelling with a disabled person not only means one less working member in the family, but also one extra person for whom to buy a bus ticket, or worse, a person to be paid for assistance.

A former colleague had to quit her job at a newspaper because paying for her transport and attenders cost more than her salary. Do you begin to see the mismatch between the Railway Budget and the Union Budget? Because unless the rest of the country is accessible, how will a person with a disability access the railway station of the future, with all its beautiful facilities in the first place?

Disability is not just a condition that a percentage of the population has to live with, it is a condition that is reinforced by an environment that often seems designed to make persons with disabilities dependent, not independent. The only way to change this is to change the way we view disability. One approach could be to start viewing disability as a continuum that we will all be part of at some point or the other.

We could break a leg, have eye surgery and be blind for a few days. We could have a serious illness and be too weak to walk or even have laryngitis and be unable to speak. Or more likely, we will simply age and find that our knees hurts, we cannot see or hear very well and that accessibility isn’t just a problem for the 2 per cent of Indian citizens who we call disabled. Access isn’t just “their” problem. It’s our problem.

Photo: Picture dated on 14th Feb, 2012 shows the Rotary Club of Nagpur along with the Department of Social Welfare organising a sporting event for people with disabilities. (Image credit: Wikimedia Commons/Rotary Club of Nagpur)

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Ranjitha Gunasekaran studied English and Mass Communications before joining The New Indian Express reporting team in 2006, covering urban local bodies and heritage. 

She left the paper to help the Communications department of The Banyan, an NGO which works with destitute mentally ill women before rejoining the Express Weekend section. She covered gender, mental health, development and edited the paper's Sexualities section, the first of its kind in the country. She headed the Weekend section from August 2010 to April 2011 before leaving to help ideate on and launch a daily school edition of the newspaper. 

She loves dogs and food and has written about the latter for the Express lifestyle magazine, Indulge, from 2009. She quit her job in October to focus on her writing.

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