Accessibility still remains elusive for persons with disabilities

Persons with disabilities raise concerns about the lethargy of the Central and State governments in not adhering to the statutory accessibility compliance

Updated - June 19, 2022 11:29 am IST

Published - June 14, 2022 11:43 pm IST - CHENNAI

Persons with disabilities participated in an Accessible Chennai Tour at the Central Square on Tuesday.

Persons with disabilities participated in an Accessible Chennai Tour at the Central Square on Tuesday. | Photo Credit: R. RAGU

Chennai’s Central Square still a nightmare for the physically challenged
| Video Credit: The Hindu Bureau

On Tuesday morning, F. Matilda, a wheelchair user, tried to navigate a steep ramp at Central Square near the Puratchi Thalaivar Dr. MGR Chennai Central Railway Station. Her wheelchair kept sliding backwards, and a friend soon had to assist her.  

Like Matilda, Persons with disabilities from Chennai and activists had gathered at Central Square to mark an important date — the June 15 deadline specified in the Rights of Persons with Disabilities Act 2016, and Rules — as the final date for retrofitting old infrastructure to make it accessible. With placards that read “Where is Our Azadi”, they raised concerns about the lethargy of the Central and State governments in not adhering to the statutory accessibility compliance.

“Why has this not been taken up as a priority by the government?” questioned Smitha Sadasivam, a member of the Disability Rights Alliance.

She also spoke about the Accessible India Campaign, which is aimed at making a proportion of government buildings, transport and websites accessible for Persons with disabilities. While it was launched in 2015, there have been a series of changes in deadlines — the most recent one being June 2022. “We have learnt that Tamil Nadu has asked for an extension of a year to meet this deadline. Over the next six months, accessibility should be given top priority and worked on by the State government,” she said.

On the Accessible India Campaign’s website, an accessible buildings list for Tamil Nadu has just four buildings. These are the Collectorate, Directorate of Agriculture, and the Government Museum in Chennai, and the Coimbatore Corporation Office. Some basic access features in these buildings too have been marked under ‘No’, according to the details furnished. 

From the Central Square, wheelchair users who attempted to make their way towards Ripon Buildings were unable to get off the platform given the height at which it was located. They had to be assisted and after finding themselves on the next platform, they were met with a row of bollards — all placed with less than 3 feet space which meant their wheelchairs couldn’t pass through. 

“As a public facility — central square is just an example of how inaccessible these kinds of spaces are,” said Sathish Kumar, a member of the Disability Rights Alliance. “We want public facilities like this to be completely barrier-free and shouldn’t just be accessible in parts,” he added.  Mr. Sathish has for years now, been speaking about making public transport accessible and safe for persons with disabilities.

Mr. Sathish and Ms. Smitha then proceeded to visit the Railway Station to check on the ease of getting into train compartments as wheelchair users. “When asked about this, I was shown a board where it was written in faded font that I could ask for a temporary ramp from the passenger care centre. We asked for one, and had to wait for half-an-hour till it arrived. Information like this should be prominently displayed,” she said. 

With information and communication being vital for persons with visual and hearing impairment, this too is lacking in public transport systems, said Kavitha, who has a hearing impairment. She said that for users of the Chennai Metro like her, there are inadequate banners for guidance and information in the trains. 

Ummul Khair, a disability rights lawyer who travelled by the Chennai Metro Rail to reach the Central Square said that the gap between the platform and the metro train continues to be a source of worry. “The wheel of my wheelchair got stuck momentarily and I was worried. This is a safety aspect that should not be overlooked,” she said. 

Ms. Smitha stressed on how safety and accessibility go hand-in-hand. “At the Central Square for instance, there are no tactile edge strips and we even saw people without disabilities tripping. If there is no one else for assistance, it will become impossible for persons with disabilities to navigate any public space independently, given the lack of focus on both accessibility and safety,” she said. 

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