Barrier-Free Spaces is Shivani’s Goal

CHENNAI: A bubbly and charming woman in her mid-40s, Shivani Gupta is easy to like. After talking to her for over an hour, it’s impossible to not be impressed by her focus and zeal in trying to make accessibility and inclusion a part of social infrastructure.

The author of No Looking Back – A True Story, Shivani is the founder of AccessAbility, one of India’s top and most reliable consultants in accessibility. “The aim was to give support to organisations, corporate houses and educational institutions to make work places more accessible,” says Shivani, a wheelchair user.

After a freak accident in 1992 injured her spine and left her quadriplegic, Shivani’s life changed upside down. From a happy-go-lucky 22-year-old, who also had a successful career at a five-star hotel, she was suddenly looking at a life to be spent in a wheelchair. A brief stint at a rehabilitation centre in the UK in 1996, and thereafter, a training programme at UNESCAP (UN Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific) in Bangkok, gave her renewed focus. It also made her realise that the government must create an environment where persons with disabilities (PwDs) are able to sustain a livelihood by competing against the rest of the world on an equal basis.

“In 2000, nobody understood the problems and challenges faced by PwDs. They didn’t understand the idea of making the work environment barrier-free. People looked at me with pity and sympathy. I hated it, and I knew I had to do something about it,” she says.

She went back to the UK to pursue a Master’s degree in Inclusive Environments. It helped her gain a fresh perspective on disability and that’s how AccessAbility was born in 2006.

What Shivani does is visit the company, upon invitation, do an access audit and submit a detailed report how the office can be made disabled-friendly. She gives suggestions and ideas to implement accessibility mechanisms. “Access audits in 2006, 2008 and 2009 revealed that companies hired people with mild disabilities; and they hired very few. But it’s different now. People with cognitive disabilities, autism and other kinds of severe disabilities are being hired,” she adds.

If need be, she trains staff in sign language and helps them interact sensitively with PwDs. She also assists the company in procurement. “For instance, when a company installs an elevator, my job is to tell them about the space required for a wheelchair user inside the elevator, keep the buttons at a certain height, use Braille, make it voice-automated, have rails at a certain height and width, etc,” explains the Helen Keller awardee (2008).

Making work spaces barrier-free does not end with conducting an access audit. “It has become a feel-good factor for many companies to do an access audit. So it just ends there. Implementation is not done as much as it should be,” she rues. “Companies keep promising to carry out our suggestions. Some claim they have no budget and a few others promise to do it in the next refurbishment. It’s disheartening at times.”

But it’s tough and expensive to make a company’s architecture barrier-free after it is built. Shivani concurs and adds, “You cannot make accessible spaces as an after-thought. Unless it’s a part of the company’s initial Plan of Action – the blueprint, it will never be completely barrier-free. And that’s where the government plays an important role.”

Legislative support is paramount in making accessibility of public spaces mandatory. Though building bylaws are different in each Indian state, the section on disabilities has to be made a part of the mandate. Shivani cites an example on how PwDs can be discriminated against. “The National Building Code addresses disability but as an annexure only. It is also outdated by decades! If they have a fire evacuation plan, I am sure there is no mention of the ways in which person with disabilities must be evacuated. This could have avoided had there been a government mandate that made accessibility compulsory,” she points out.

Shivani also cites the US as an example of how public spaces are made barrier-free, not just for PwDs but also for pregnant women, senior citizens and children. “The US has included accessibility in the Procurement Act, and also in the American Disabilities Act; it’s mandatory for all government procurement to be disabled-friendly. This leaves no choice for manufacturers and builders but to make and construct things that are accessible by everyone. ”

Some of her clients are Lemon Tree, ITC Group, Indian School of Business in Hyderabad, First Indian Corporation, Deutsche Bank in Chennai, Chennai Mathematical Institute, etc.