The general post-office (GPO) in Lucknow is as good a place as any to understand how people in authority treat people with disabilities (PwDs). At 11 am, counter No 4, for senior citizens, women and the handicapped, had a rather long queue, though most of the 70-odd counters had far less business. Yet, at one of the remaining counters, the postal assistant preferred to relax and refused to entertain your request, pointing you to join the long queue at counter No 4. Thus, a man stood there patiently for over an hour, supporting himself on his crutches, but postal officers at other counters would offer no help to him. In short, there is official apathy when it comes to PwDs.
People perceived to be less-abled than the majority have been compartmentalised in most structures in society. Public services are, then, no exception. Though the government has framed many guidelines for better access to PwDs, the world remains inaccessible to most of them.
For example, a ramp, mandatory at public places for better access to people confined to a wheelchair, is often built in such a thoughtless way that it ends up creating another hurdle for those who have to use them. The gradient of such ramps should be 1:12, however, according to Nilesh Singit, a Mumbai-based activist for accessibility, at places it is as steep as 1:9. “It is impossible for a person on a wheelchair to go up that gradient! I have difficulty in taking my motorised wheelchair on such steep slopes,” he says.
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Most housing colonies are not designed to be very helpful to PwDs. Builders do not need accessibility certificates from authorities before putting up housing projects for sale. According to Prasanna Kumar Pincha, chief commissioner for people with disabilities, his office is not supposed to carry out access audit but it is done when the need arises or when there is a complaint. He, however, agrees there is no institutionalisation of the process. “States need to raise cadres of access auditors so that they don’t have to refer cases to Delhi each time,” he says.
Shivani Gupta, accessibility activist based in Delhi and the author of the book, ‘No Looking Back’, has a basic question regarding access audits. She asks, “How can there be audit certificates when there are no standards for design of accessible buildings?” The bureau of Indian standards (BIS) has no accessibility standards for design of buildings, electronic equipment or public transport.
Design standards are not the only missing element. “A very basic thing. There are no courses for accessibility design in architecture colleges in India. Institutions like the school of architecture and planning (of Delhi) may provide some electives, but that’s about it,” says Gupta.
Gupta and Pincha point a finger to the larger, fundamental issue in the lack of accessibility to public spaces and services to PwDs in India: lack of training and awareness of the policy makers and implementers.
Shyama Chona, former principal, Delhi Public School (DPS) at RK Puram in Delhi, says that it is because education is unable to teach people to empathise with others. She currently runs a school for training and education of children with disabilities called Tamanna. “Our education lacks sensitisation. Society blames the disabled people instead of understanding their needs and catering to them,” she says.
PwDs in India stand at a conservative estimate of 2.2 percent of the population or roughly 26 million people – a small number that gives them no bargaining power to demand an accessible world. It is only with the bill to provide rights to persons with disability, pending in the Rajya Sabha, that the rights discourse has been introduced to the accessibility lexicon in India.
“India is a signatory to the UN convention for the rights of persons with disability (UNCRPD), ratified in 2007. Why is accessibility still not a right?” asks Gupta.
Far from it. When the ministry of social justice and empowerment issued guidelines in 2011 for providing accessibility to PwDs in public spaces, it introduced the disclaimer “within the limits of its (the state’s) economic capacity”, which has been used as an excuse for authorities to provide only half-hearted measures to the disabled population.
Accessibility demands of PwDs thus could be easily put on the back-burner if economic conditions so demand. Pincha says changing the disclaimer part to “The state shall, to the maximum of its available resources…” can make a difference.
Guidelines do exist, such as those for ‘space standards for barrier-free built environment for disabled and elderly persons’, but they are not implemented well. “It is done for the heck of it. There are no follow-up inspections, there is no one who cares whether the guidelines are followed properly,” Singit says.
Pincha says that the lack of will is evident in implementing laws for providing access to PwDs. He notes that the Persons with Disability Act, 1995, which came into force on February 7, 1996, calls for changes in the building by-laws of each state to ensure accessibility. “Some states have not amended their by-laws till now. Some are in the process. Only a few have amended their laws,” he says.
There is complete absence of any formal training for government officers for accessibility. What is done instead is a one-off workshop or lecture once a year. The only institute where some degree of training is provided is the Lal Bahadur Shastri national academy of administration, Mussorie. It organises regular workshops on the subject during its civil services training programme.
Even the public sector undertaking, Artificial Limb Manufacturing Corporation of India (ALIMCO), entrusted with the task of producing low-cost devices such as wheelchairs, has not taken the cause to its heart. Its products, though low on price, are heavily compromised on quality, activists say. There have been many complaints, but ALIMCO has never been booked for producing substandard products.
In the open market, such products are costly and beyond the reach of most. A fully motorised wheelchair can cost anywhere between ‘10,000 to ‘20,000. Mobile phones with the talk software for the blind are also expensive. “It is ironical to expect PwDs to spend a large amount of money for accessing day-to-day services considering the whole debate on disability is structured around poverty,” argues Gupta.
There is some support though. Through the ‘assistance to disabled persons for purchase / fitting of aids and appliances’ (ADIP) scheme, the government provides a subsidy on the cost of aid and appliance for use by PwDs. The cost is fully reimbursed if the beneficiary’s monthly income is ‘6,500 or less. If it is more than that but below ‘10,000, there is 50 percent reimbursement.
This cost is reimbursed only if the appliance is bought with assistance of NGOs, national institutes under the ministry of social justice or ALIMCO. Again, substandard products by ALIMCO force the PwDs to depend on the expensive products. Some can afford such products; the rest have to bear the burden of their disability.
Gupta hopes the Modi government would change the way the state deals with PWDs. “The use of the sign language during the telecast of the PM’s swearing-in ceremony is a welcome move. Let’s see where we go from there,” she says.
She might be right. Though its location is yet to be decided, the government has decided to set up an ‘institute of universal design’ to provide training in accessibility design. “It will deal with accessibility design in an organised and periodic way,” says Pincha.