How often have you seen a person on a wheelchair trying to get to an auditorium or in a queue to pay a utility bill? Clearly not often enough.
A cursory glance at the public spaces in the city gives a clear indication of large gaps left in the implementation of the Persons With Disabilities (Equal Opportunities, Protection of Rights and Full Participation) Act 1995.
Even infrastructure that is directly pertinent to persons with disabilities, such as the offices of the State Commissioner for Persons with Disabilities and the Directorate of Welfare of Disabled and Senior Citizens, is largely inaccessible.
Cars are often found parked on the ramps in Visvesvaraya Tower, which houses the Directorate, and the Commissioner's office has a dilapidated and unsafe ramp. As for other guidelines for barrier-free environments, like railings, Braille signage and tactile flooring, forget it.
Wheelchair-user Mahesh Chandrashekar said he cannot take up a job unless the toilets are made accessible. “I'm unable to do the simplest things like buying groceries because it is impossible to navigate footpaths. Most railway stations are inaccessible; and to be carried across platforms is an unpleasant and unsafe experience,” he said.
When Divisional Railway Manager Sudhanshu Mani was asked about the means for a wheelchair user to cross platforms, he merely said: “There is no provision. The wheelchair user will have to come to the right platform.”
Ankit Jindal, who is visually impaired, said most places in Bangalore are inaccessible to people like him. “The other day I visited an eye hospital and found that even that building was not barrier-free.” S.R. Chitra and P.R. Kumar, hearing impaired Bangaloreans, pointed out the lack of sign language interpreters in public gatherings, seminars and speeches where important information is often dispensed.
Making infrastructure universally accessible is still largely perceived as an act of charity and not a realisation of the right of persons with disabilities. “In the 16 years since the Act came into force, only about 20 per cent of the government buildings in Bangalore have been made partially barrier-free. The problem is that such action is taken only in the face of coercion and not in recognition of the equal right to access that the 70 million people with disabilities in India [have],” said K.V. Rajanna, State Commissioner for Persons with Disabilities.
Lack of political will
Attributing the ineffective implementation of the Act to the lack of political will, accountability and training, Javed Abidi, founder of Disability Rights Group, said: “Even the structures that are supposedly disabled-friendly are not really so. Stringent action must be taken against those who flout accessibility norms. The Chief Commissioner for Persons with Disabilities and the State Commissioners have the power to take such action, but it is never exercised.”
Mr. Rajanna is, however, optimistic that the situation in Karnataka will improve. He intends to assert his power as the head of the Social Audit Committee which will look into the accessibility of all public buildings.
“Looking at the situation before the 1995 Act, there has been a lot of work done, even without any real accountability to enforce norms. With the new law — which is being drafted — placing an obligation on the parties to conform to accessibility norms, the implementation is bound to increase,” said Amita Dhanda, legal consultant for the new law.