There are potentially huge benefits even for the able-bodied population in the Tamil Nadu government’s notification of rules to create special facilities for the disabled in urban local bodies. That makes the case stronger to embrace universal design across all construction activity. All multi-storeyed buildings with more than two floors that the public access on a regular basis are mandated to be equipped with ramps, lifts and other appropriate provisions under the new rules. Lest they should lead to arbitrary interpretation, the rules explicitly mention all educational institutions, health care and banking services, leisure and recreation facilities, shopping malls, industries and much else as falling within their purview. The measure will make a material difference in the lives of large numbers of people with locomotor impairments, for whom the constitutionally guaranteed right to freedom of mobility has all but remained notional. The commitments made in the relevant 1995 law for persons with disabilities have likewise by and large eluded them. But India’s demographic transition has brought into sharp focus a convergence between the needs of the population aged 60 years and above and those of the disabled. The elderly constitute 10.3 per cent of Tamil Nadu’s population, above the national average of close to 7.5 per cent, according to the 2010 Sample Registration System. The prevalence of age-induced ailments such as arthritis among this segment means the elderly, too, will benefit from the convenience of ramps and not just wheel-chair users.
Clearly, there is a large constituency out there — beyond legal definitions of disabilities — for which freedom of mobility is a real issue. That should once and for all rest the case against claims that the costs of special provisions for the disabled far outweigh the gains. Such an argument is at best a convenient cloak for inaction. It is also obvious that improvements in physical accessibility are only part of the long journey to ensure equality of opportunities for the disabled. Commensurate measures ought to be initiated in the arenas of education and employment. Training skilled personnel for sign-language interpretation for the hearing impaired, developing technologies for people with low-vision and the introduction of reasonable accommodation in the workplace are important among them. In their absence, the right to free and compulsory education would remain a mirage for children with impairments and the wider objective of an inclusive society. Ambitious as they seem, the Tamil Nadu rules stipulate a 180-day deadline for implementation. Other States in the country should follow this lead.