Breaking free of barriers


A lot of things happened to Shivani Gupta in 2004. Even as she patted herself for the diploma in Architecture Technology from Rai University, she got news of an education scholarship from Tata, Sminu Jindal Trust and Snowdon (U.K.). She would enrol for a two-year MSc course in Inclusive Environment at University of Reading, U.K. Before leaving, she would collect the Neerja Bhanot Award for woman achiever, though her dad would receive her National (Role Model) Award from the President of India.

Not that life was less hectic pre-2004. She had made career climbs as access consultant and tech advisor, access auditor for government buildings such as Shastri Bhavan and Nirman Bhavan, peer counsellor, co-auditor for Access in London written by Gordon Couch and Course Coordinator for access workshops. She became member of the National Core Access Committee, guest-lectured at Schools of Architecture, co-authored ‘Planning a Barrier Free Environment’ and had managed the art gallery at Indian Spinal Cord Injuries Centre. She had also invented 48-hour days.

And she did all this from a wheelchair, a spinal cord injury in a car accident having certified her a quadriplegic – paralysed in all four limbs. In a country where building entrances boast insurmountable steps, footpaths resemble war zones, parks, elevators and rest rooms don’t accept wheelchairs and airplanes prefer to carry a person into the craft rather than organise ambulifts, her constant travel as access consultant should be considered remarkable.

Designing spaces

But we’re talking architecture. Her interest in designing spaces sprang from a UN ESCAP programme she attended in Bangkok. “I pioneered the first ever project on barrier-free environment in our country,” she smiled. “The manual I co-wrote is a must-study for architects, engineers, designers and people with disabilities.” She decided to qualify as an architect, “a very bold step for a person with hand deformity.”

Wheelchair mobility in India and the U.K. – she isn’t keen on comparisons. “I’ll always work to make places accessible in India,” she said simply. “But yes, for a wheelchair user, living in the U.K. is easier. Roads and transport systems are better designed for independent movement. The Government makes sure disabled people don’t become a burden to the family. Their Disability Discrimination Act is better implemented and is binding.”

She likens universal design to the sari, “a garment that fits all women irrespective of their build and age. It applies to everything — gadgets, buildings, clothing, even policies.” An inclusive blueprint helps children, pregnant moms, women pushing strollers, those carrying heavy luggage, the aged and the temporarily disabled. It means the same access for all. “Why should a disabled person be asked to come through a service door at the back?”

Access improvements

Shivani is now co-partner in AccessAbility, a firm that designs accessible environments. “Our company consults for the ITC Welcomgroup,” she beamed. “We’ve suggested access improvements in 10 of their properties. Being a premium hotel chain they have put in most mobility requirements. We’ll just plug the gaps and improve accessibility for the hearing and visually-impaired.” Getting the building right in the design stage cuts costs drastically, she pointed out. Her own room at Park Sheraton obviously suits her needs, and ITC is looking at a common design for all future guest rooms.

She is “very against the notion” that her disability lends authenticity to her work. “I would like to be recognised as a pro and not just a user demanding ramps. I studied my subject in detail to break from this idea.” In the few months since it advertised, her firm is doing well. “Unless companies employ people with disabilities, they won’t show interest in making offices usable for all. So we’re promoting job opportunities for disabled people. It’s end-to-end assistance — identifying the candidate, training, accessibility improvement and post-employment support.”

What is life in a wheelchair? “The question is a tough one for me,” she said softly. “I’ve fought sympathy all my life. I started painting, began to exhibit. I made good money too, but quit when I felt people bought my work because I am disabled. The reason I chose to enrol for a post graduate course at 32 was to make a place for myself in the real world.” She needs neither encouragement nor support. “Listen to me because I damn well know what I am talking about. I will always want my abilities to precede my disability.”

In a life of routine successes, what pops up as most memorable? “Compliments for my work as a professional,” she said at once. “ITC valued it for quality, wouldn’t accept second grade work because I am a disabled person.” Has anything made her laugh off her wheelchair? “Yes,” she said, eyes dancing. “When I visited Haridwar, a woman gave me 25paise thinking I was a beggar!”