Across Marina beach in a wheelchair

It’s a day they cherish and it’s a day they want, every day

Published - December 07, 2018 04:50 pm IST

On December 3, which is the International Day of Disaled Persons, a busload of young wheelchair users arrives at the Marina for an outing. Helped by NTT DATA volunteers, they wheel down to the waterfront on the ramp stitched together with wooden planks and covered by a red carpet. The afternoon sea is rough, but that isn’t stopping anyone. Wheelchairs reach the water and smiles, laughter and shrieks break out. “My feet are wet!” says a kid in disbelief.

But the fun will last just 48 hours.

“This plank-and-mat pathway is temporary,” points out advocate M. Ummul Khair, Co-ordinator, Disability Legislation Unit, Vidyasagar and member-Disability Rights International. “We thank the Greater Chennai Corporation (GCC) and the Commissioner of Police for making this possible, but shouldn’t we be able to enjoy the surf every day? Whenever we feel like?” Her disability rights group submitted to the GCC a blueprint in 2016 for a year-round ramp and disabled-friendly toilets, which awaits CRZ clearance. “It is a matter of our rights. If we can’t get to the water, no one should!”

In the absence of an all-year structure, permission has to be obtained every year to put up the temporary one on the beach. This involves paper work and running to different offices. The disability group hopes to get the 24x7x365 pathway by next year. “It must be put up in all beaches — Marina, Elliot’s, Thiruvalluvar… so I can splash in the water anytime I like.” V.S. Anjana, another wheelchair user is sure they will “make it happen.” They appreciate volunteer-help, but “we should be able to ride down on our own. Beaches should be accessible to all.”

Surrounded by selfie-clicking volunteers, M. Tariq is having a whale of a time. “Thrilled to have the water touching my feet,” he grins. “Have never crossed the beach till now. The ramp is nice, but needs to be there all days, with railings on the sides.” R. Vimala, wheelchair user Divya Radhakrishnan’s guardian can’t contain her happiness. Divya doesn’t speak much, but she keeps smiling and repeating “Very happy,” she says.

V. Suguna, teacher/special educator/therapist/ of 33 years at Vidya Sagar is hopeful. Young people like Divya have been coming to the beach for 15 years, she notes. Under the “Adult Leisure Programme,” they make it to the beach two days a week, but return after viewing the beach from the service lane. Parents get older, children get heavier, so transferring them to other vehicles is more difficult, she says.

“What we have today is a good beginning, but permanent transport accessibility through a well-designed path will make a huge difference in the lives of wheelchair users.”

Out of the nearly one lakh people with disability in Chennai, only 200-300 turn up on these two days, remarks R. Satish Kumar, alumnus-Vidya Sagar and Corporation Bank Officer. Everyone cannot come to the beach on a designated day or two, so the temporary ramp is not a good example to make the city disabled-friendly, he feels.

“When there is no all-year structure, we have to depend on local people for help. We would like to be independent.”

He has brought a fresh angle to the whole issue. Even when the ramp work was going on, beach visitors began to walk down the red-carpeted path, he says. “Whenever a disabled-friendly structure is put up, it gains universal application. People without disabilities find it easier to cross the beach.” He hopes to see the new structure before March, 2019.

I ask M. Govinda Rao, Deputy Commissioner (Works), Greater Chennai Corporation, about the status of the ramp-laying. The accessible path is part of the Swadesh Dharshan Scheme, he says. “We are working towards a CRZ compliant accessible footpath structure. With this and the balloon wheelchairs we are in the process of procuring, our wheelchair-using friends should be able to get to the water throughout the year.” When? “Definitely before Disability Day, 2019.”

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