Physical and attitudinal barriers In Kerala, especially Thiruvananthapuram, make life difficult for those facing mobility problems.

How safe and friendly is the city for its population with physical challenges and the elderly with mobility problems?

In many developed nations, creating a barrier-free environment for providing better access to public spaces and public transport is so much a part of the culture that those with physical disabilities and the elderly are able to lead independent lives.

“In Kerala, especially Thiruvananthapuram, I find the attitudinal barriers more daunting than any physical barrier, when I seek access to places of public utility or opportunities for career or leisure. I have never allowed my physical disability (due to cerebral palsy) affect my enthusiasm for life and I travel everywhere. But I am constantly frustrated and angered when people ask me, ‘Do you really have to take all this trouble and try to be everywhere; why can’t you be working from home?’” says Sona Jose, a firebrand activist for the disabled and the State coordinator for the project “Badte Kadam.”

Unsafe footpaths, lack of ramps for rolling wheelchairs through, doors which are not wide enough to allow wheelchair access, lack of proper audiovisual signals and traffic signs, high footboards of public transport vehicles and trains and lack of lifts, ambu-lifts, or hydraulic lifts in railway terminals are some difficulties faced by the disabled and the elderly.

Often, a pension office or a bank situated on the first or second floor of a building may not have a lift or a ramp. There may not be handrails to lend support. Absence of modified toilets is another major issue for the disabled.

“Most of the buildings — government offices, courts, Secretariat — in Thiruvananthapuram do not have ease of access for the disabled or elderly. I have travelled in many metros in India and abroad too, which are so disabled-friendly that people like me have no mobility or access issues. In Mumbai and Delhi, people are more supportive, and there are very active organisations which conduct access audit surveys in public spaces and pressure the government to make these barrier-free. But to travel on a train in Kerala, I have to reach hours ahead of the scheduled time and seek the good will of porters to get me inside the terminal and on to the right platform,” Ms. Jose says.

“As a society, I think we are very insensitive to the special requirements that the physically disabled need to move freely in public spaces like any of us. Difficulty in mobility affects not just their mind, spirit and personality but it also reduces their opportunities for employment and career development. If you have a family member with physical disability, you will perhaps be more sensitive to the need for equal opportunities for the disabled,” J. Sandhya, an activist and advocate with Human Rights Law Network, says.

She points out that railway stations have to be one of the most disabled-unfriendly places in the city. Not just the disabled, the elderly and patients who have to travel far after treatment at the Regional Cancer Centre here find it difficult to find their way to the right platform and into the train.

As part of implementing the provisions of the Persons with Disabilities Act, 1995, the State governments have now been asked to ensure that all public spaces such as parks, bus terminals, railway stations, hospitals, educational institutions and government offices are made barrier-free to create a more inclusive society for the physically challenged.

The guidelines for creating barrier-free spaces, formulated by the Union Ministry of Urban Development, have been handed over to all department heads, planners and local governments and access audits surveys are being conducted. The process of making public spaces barrier-free has been set in motion and will be taken up in a phased manner, N. Ahmed Pillai, State Commissioner for Persons with Disabilities, says.

An accident tomorrow can render you disabled, requiring the need for a wheelchair. The thought should put the need for a barrier-free environment in a better perspective.