When access equals ability India Beats

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Shivani Gupta champions the neglected aspect of infrastructure access for the disabled. Madhu Gurung

I WALK up the ramp and ring the bell and am welcomed by Ubbu’s barking. Her mistress, Shivani Gupta, watches indulgently from her wheelchair. “I hope you are not afraid of dogs, Ubbu wants to know everyone who comes.”

Shivani’s home and office at Vasant Kunj, Delhi, is called AccessAbility. A fledgling four-month-old organisation, it champions the neglected aspect of infrastructure access for the disabled. With short cropped hair and intense brown eyes, Shivani says, “We believe access equals ability. It is only when the disabled have access to infrastructure, can they be mainstreamed into society.”

An accident

Shivani was 22 and working as a guest relations officer with Maurya Sheraton, Delhi, when she decided to resign to pursue her Masters in Hotel Management at New Hampshire University in the U.K. “It was February 14, 1991. I had a going-away party for my friends. Around 11.00 p.m., we went to drop a friend who had a night-shift. On the Ridge Road, an animal ran before the car. My friend braked and the car spun out of control. I was thrown out and suffered spinal injury. I was in hospital for six months, long enough to realise I would never walk again.”

After six months of hospitalisation, she came back home to live with her grandparents in Faridabad. “Fifteen-sixteen years ago, people did not know much about spinal injury. After initial tears and “why me” depression, I didn’t dwell too much on it. I think I was happy in achieving small things like my care giver taking me to the market. Everyday was a challenge and I was determined to take it forward.”

She laughs as she recalls how her grandmother would make her knead dough to exercise her hands. Shivani took up painting as therapy to keep herself occupied. “I got in touch with Rajender Jauhar of the Family of Disabled and they bought some of my cards. I had two exhibitions and I got a lot of appreciation.”

Bolstered by her ability to move with a care giver, Shivani did a two-month peer counselling course in the U.K. and returned to begin working at the Indian Spinal Injury Center. “I worked there for six years from 1996 to 2002. Then I attended the UN ESCAP Forum in Bangkok, a 15-day capsule to promote non-handicap environment for the disabled and the elderly.”

The course was “the turning point in my life. I knew then that I wanted to work to provide accessibility to people with disability in a built up environment.”

Back in 2000, accessibility was not a much-talked-about issue. Shivani and Vikas Sharma, an occupational therapist, together wrote a manual “Planning a barrier-free environment” for the office of Chief Commissioner of Public Works Department. Shivani says that it was a guideline for architects and builders to make the premises accessible to the disabled and elderly.

Towards her goal

Shivani admits that she soon realised that the 15-day training at ESCAP was not enough. She joined the Rai University at Mathura Road to do a diploma in architecture technology. Using her diploma as a launch pad, Shivani wanted to do a two-year post-graduate degree from Reading University in U.K. but needed funding.

“I got a loan for Rs. 8,50,000 from the National Handicap Finance and Development Corporation. I needed double the amount because I had to take my care giver too. So I got two Tata scholarships. I also got sponsorship from Sminu Jindal Charitable Trust and the Neerja Bhanot cash prize of Rs. 1,50,000. In the U.K., I got the Snowdon Award, which helped me get through the two years. I tried getting work but I wasn’t successful.”

She returned home and got in touch with Vikas Sharma and his friend Sachin Verma, who had returned from Australia with a Masters in IT Technology and the three started AccessAbility.

“We are not an NGO but a registered firm and want to progress as a company because we look at accessability as a mainstream issue.”

Already AccessAbility has streamlined its area of work. The first area they work in is infrastructure ability, where they carry out access audits and access appraisals. They also train service providers like airlines, cinema halls so that their staff can interact sensitively with the disabled. They also work with HR departments making them sensitive and open to recruiting people with disability.

“The third component, which we are still working on, is employability or increased employment opportunity for people with disabilities. We also assist corporates develop their social responsibility programmes, says Shivani.

Already AccessAbility is a consultant for the ITC WelcomGroup. Following an access audit of existing hotels, the group is helping with access appraisals for a new hotel in Bangalore. They are also developing a manual for hotels on the mandatory requirements for the disabled based on international standards.

Changing attitudes

“Work is pouring in because attitudes are changing,” says Shivani, “and people are now more open to accepting the disabled. AccessAbility has already done a feasibility study of the 42-acre campus of the National Institute for Visually Handicapped (NIVH) in Dehra Dun.”

They have completed an access audit for Jamia Millia University. The Ministry of Social Justice has also shown interest in promoting sports and recreational activities for the disabled.

Shivani has to travel extensively and that, she admits, is a major problem. “I cannot stand up, so I have to be lifted. It is humiliating to be trussed up like a sack of potatoes. Lifting a person with disabilities is very simple and can be done with a little sensitivity. The airlines are not aware of the requirements nor are they sensitive to our needs. We intend to take it up with the Ministry of Aviation and Railways. Thanks to a PIL, all aircraft will have an ambulift soon.”

Total commitment

Her partner, Sachin, says he has learnt much from Shivani. “She is like a horse with blinkers — eyes focused on her goals. Her commitment to her work is absolute.” Shivani laughs it off, “You cannot plough a field by turning it in your mind. Actions speak more than words. I am lucky to be working with friends who think alike.”

With child-like glee, Shivani points to her laptop. “From next week, we will have a forum linked to our website >www.accessability@co.in. Anyone with disabilities or their family and friends can access it. They can leave their address, a query, share their stories, experiences, articles, or just be part of this new circle of friends. We welcome everyone. We hope that this networking will help us reach out to people and make our next goal of promoting employment for the disabled a possibility.”

AccessAbility can be contacted at D 8/8073 Vasant Kunj, New Delhi 110070. Ph: 011- 26130862, 9868384739