A dream for change

Meet Shivani Gupta, an accessibility consultant who is trying to make the country’s infrastructure accessible for the differently-abled.

Shivani Gupta’s friend was excited — she’d bought her first car. But an uphill task awaited her — getting a driver’s licence. Differently-abled, she had no choice but to take the stairs in one of Chennai’s RTOs that was devoid of a lift. “The officials did come down for some of the formalities. But the machine that was to take her photograph couldn’t be brought down,” says Shivani, ruefully. Accessibility for the differently-abled is what she is striving for through her organisation, AccessAbility. An accessibility consultant, she was in the city recently to inaugurate the Two Tone Furniture Expo.

“I promote accessible infrastructure in the private and public sector. Be it a restaurant, an educational institution, a movie theatre or a hospital, I provide support so that the infrastructure is accessible for people with disabilities,” says the 45-year-old. Shivani feels that accessibility is the answer to most of the problems faced by the differently-abled. “Don’t I have equal rights like every other citizen of this country to go see places and enjoy myself?” she asks.

While the richer countries and the metros in India fare better in terms of providing accessible environments for the differently-abled, Shivani feels that it’s the small towns and villages that are being neglected. The change has to start at the policy level. “It’s widely assumed that ramps are the answer to all our problems. But they’re not. What about people with cross-disabilities? How will a ramp help a hearing-impaired person?” wonders Shivani.

Shivani has been on a wheel chair from the time she was 22 years old — she was in a car crash that injured her spine. But her tryst with accessible infrastructure began eight years later, in 2000, whenshe happened to attend a workshop on a similar theme in Bangkok. Until then, she’d just accepted things the way they were. But gradually, she began to ask questions. Why didn’t many differently-abled people hold mainstream jobs? Why did they have to depend on others for even basic commute? Why didn’t those who planned cities take such people into consideration? Weren’t they part of society too? She sought answers through AccessAbility, a company that provided ‘architectural access and universal design consultancy’.

The situation has gradually improved in our country, feels Shivani. But several places of importance still remain out of bounds for people with disabilities. “I believe the Chennai High Court is not accessible,” she says. “What if there was a disabled lawyer who wanted to practise there?” In a lot of occasions, the fact that a building has heritage status is stated as an excuse. “But there are ways of incorporating access features without damaging the building.”

She has travelled across the world, but Shivani will never forget her trip to Geneva. “I took a public bus for the first time,” she says. “I’ve spent all my life travelling in taxis — an expensive affair. To be able to travel in a bus like everyone else… I cannot describe the feeling.” Her eyes well up as she smiles away her tears.

Given her conviction, one would assume that Shivani is the kind who dedicates her life to what she does. But she begs to differ. “No, no, I’m not an activist. I’m an average person who likes to watch TV all day and eat good food,” she grins.

Shivani is the author of No Looking Back (Rupa). For details, visit her website www.accessability.co.in