Access ramp, soft-textured food, tactile walls, pictorial menu… Kalakkal Café shows the way to create inclusive social spaces

Tariq effortlessly rolls his wheelchair over a short incline and enters a room where music and freshly-made snacks make an inviting combo. This ramp is of a conspicuously reduced dimension — barely one-and-a-half-ft long — but it provides Tariq and other differently-abled people access to the often elusive world where they can meet the able-bodied on an equal footing. Welcome to Kalakkal Café, a youth hangout erected on the foundations of inclusivity.

Help at hand

An initiative by Vidya Sagar at Kotturpuram, a special school that grapples with disability issues, the café opens its doors to those aged above 18 and offers services aimed at people across disabilities — access ramp for those on wheelchairs, mugs with sippers and handles, and soft-textured food especially helpful for those with cerebral palsy, tactile walls and ropes on the approach to the café and a pictorial menu with added descriptions in Braille for the benefit of visitors with partial- and total-impairment of vision.

The café is an offshoot of Vidya Sagar's youth programme that tries to develop its children beyond the friendly environs of a special school. “As long as they are in Vidya Sagar, they are cushioned by the understanding of teachers attuned to their special needs,” explains Rohini Ramesh, coordinator-resources. “They need extra skills to connect meaningfully with the world outside the school.” The café enables differently-abled youths — many past students of Vidya Sagar among them — to invite their able-bodied friends for a chat over snacks and beverages.

Friends of Vidya Sagar are helping out in many ways. Employees of Accenture have volunteered to run the café on the two days in a month — second and fourth Saturdays — that it is open for business. Young musicians have offered to conduct jamming sessions. Support for the initiative has come from other quarters too.

To illustrate the fact, Anuradha Shankaran, coordinator, youth programme, points to a poster at the café's entrance. It bears the painted image of a tea jar and a title — ‘Diversitea?' — encapsulating the spirit of the project. “The poster was made by Vaishnavi of Banyan. Winners Bakery offers snacks at subsidised rates,” says Anuradha.

Given its ideals, Kalakkal Café deserves a longer run than just two Saturdays a month. “This is just an experiment. In fact, we have converted an activity room for this purpose,” says Rohini. “We lack the expertise to run a fulltime café. The objective of this project is to inspire others to create similar cafes and inclusive social spaces.”

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