Barrier-free construction is neither costly nor difficult. It just needs a little foresight, says Hema Vijay

The office space of Ernst & Young is just as swanky as any you would expect to find at an IT Park, but the similarity ends there. This corporate office is one of the few in the city to have gone barrier-free, at least for the mobility challenged among the disabled.

To begin with, Tidel Park, in which complex this office is located, has a ramp that can comfortably take a wheel-chaired person into the building. There is a wide-access security gate that lets a wheelchair be rolled in easily. So E & Y’s initiative began with their parking space. They gave one of their parking slots a width of 3.6m to allow a wheel-chaired person to comfortably park his car, and step out into his wheelchair. Next, the flooring of the office was leveled in such a way that the entire office space remained at one level, from where the elevator opens and all the way, right into the washrooms. The flooring was made skid-free through wooden and other flooring material. Corridors and doorways were enlarged to extend even beyond the specified 900 mm width to allow free passage for wheelchairs. Larger restrooms were built to allow space for a wheelchair to be rolled in, with the door opening inwards, thus ensuring easy restroom access. Finally, the entire office has automated lights and air-conditioning, which not only ensures that a wheel-chaired person does not have to struggle to reach switches, but it is also energy efficient.

The important point is that not too much extra space or expense was used to ensure such access. For instance, it doesn’t make any difference in cost to mount signage at the specified height (between 1400mm and 1600mm from floor level), or to make pavements drop at a gradient (not greater than 1:12) rather than let them drop abruptly, or design counters at a height that can be accessed by a person in a wheelchair. If it’s so simple, why aren’t more public use spaces in the city accessible to everyone?

“The main requirement is the thought — the will to create a barrier-free environment. It is important to mandatorily include the requirements of all people with disabilities when any building or facility is made available for the general public,” says Jayshree Raveendran, founder-director, Ability Foundation.

Building regulations

The DCR or Development Control Rules of the CMDA building guidelines and the National Building Code mandate that all public use buildings should be barrier-free for all, and mention specifications for lighting, switches, door openings, access, lifts with Braille markings, corridor tiling and so on, and that every part of a public use building should be accessible by wheelchair through lifts or ramps, “In fact, for new buildings coming up, CMDA approval comes only if the design is access-friendly. As for existing buildings, the statutory norms of the CMDA or equivalent bodies in other districts mandate periodic renewal of the building’s Occupancy Certificates, for which the building’s accessibility has to be audited and access features included, where necessary,” says architect Xavier Benedict of Anameka Architects and Designers. Unfortunately, as with many other aspects of urban architecture, the rules are flouted recklessly.

There also seems a general lack of awareness among all stake-holders including clients, builders and architects, on making public use spaces accessible for all, or the information needed to achieve it. However, there is help at hand. NGOs like Ability Foundation based in Chennai and Samarthya in Delhi have developed guidelines for ensuring barrier-free built spaces. “I don’t have much understanding about the needs of the disabled, so I approached Ability Foundation, which gave us a checklist of specifications,” says Terry Thomas, Partner and India Leader, Ernst & Young.

Proactive approach

Should architects be more proactive in ensuring barrier-free spaces? “Of course, everybody is pressed for space. But I find that more people are willing to be socially responsible now. The onus is on the architect to create awareness and show the possibilities. Ninety-nine out of hundred clients agree to incorporate accessibility features when we suggest the idea,” says Anuradha Rao, APRObuild Architects. Architects like Rao believe that accessibility features can be designed without losing out on style. For instance, in one of APRObuild’s buildings, granite fence posts have been embedded in a horizontal alignment inside the restroom and on the corridor walls to serve as grips, instead of stainless steel grip bars. “Architecture can be disabled-friendly, but not patronisingly so if accessibility is incorporated in the design stage as an inbuilt element,” says Rao.