Points of access

Persons with disabilities comprise 10-15 per cent of the population of any geographical area, as per World Health Organisation estimates. Though the Census places the count of persons with disabilities at 2.1 per cent of the population, it has been argued that the method of collection of disability-related data by Census officials is insufficient.

Maharashtra has reported 1.6 million persons with disabilities. While Census data shows that there are more persons with disabilities in rural areas, many families who have children with disabilities, particularly learning and developmental disabilities, choose to move to cities to access better rehabilitation facilities. Many persons with disabilities themselves wish to move to the cities, but struggle with the lack of accessible infrastructure. As cities and services become more expensive and exclusive, diversity takes a huge hit, and persons with disabilities may be the first casualties of ‘change’.

Inclusive infrastructure

The focus on bettering our cities, whenever it has touched upon issues of persons with disabilities, has always been about accessibility. The ongoing Accessible India Campaign prioritises those international obligations towards the rights of persons with disabilities that mandate accessibility – for instance, enhancing the proportion of accessible government buildings, railway stations and public transport – in major cities in India, including Mumbai.

The list of 53 buildings mentioned under the Accessible India Campaign for Mumbai has a large focus on police stations, courts, and hospitals, which are doubtlessly important. However, there is a discomfort in reducing the ‘needs’ of persons with disabilities to accessing justice and healthcare alone. The inclusion of the seafacing pathways at Bandra, Worli and Marine Drive and the Taraporewala Aquarium are important when we consider inclusion in its true sense – to allow persons with disabilities to enjoy leisure and recreational activities on an equal basis with others.

India has a large disabled population between the ages of 10 and 19 (in absolute numbers, disability peaks between the age of 10 and 19) and these youngsters must get the same opportunities to socialise with their families and peers in libraries, museums, art galleries, movie theatres, restaurants and parks, with all accessibility requirements met. Not all of these are under statutory mandate of the Persons with Disabilities Act 1995 to be made accessible.

Mandating all ‘public buildings’ to be made accessible is not unprecedented, and is certainly achievable. The city must invite a collaboration of architects, conservationists, and access specialists to work on means of making Mumbai’s heritage architecture accessible, a feat which has been achieved in a large number of cities across the world.

The Accessible India campaign only looks at existing infrastructure, but for new constructions, the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation must enforce building codes on the lines of the National Building Code, 2002, to mandate all new constructions of establishments open to the public to be accessible for persons with disabilities, not only in terms of ramps, but also in terms of signage, width of corridors, accessible toilets and safety measures.

Licences given to commercial establishments such as restaurants and shopping centres beyond a minimum size should depend on an accessibility audit. Builders who ensure accessibility in the design of their projects may be given some incentives in the form of FSI, for instance.

Tackling transport

Of course, there’s no point in having accessible infrastructure if there is no way to travel to these places. Persons with disabilities are entitled to transport concessions, but this is of little use when you cannot even enter a train. Railway stations and bus shelters are not accessible, the railway compartments and buses themselves even less so.

It is not like this is a novel idea: a public interest litigation before the Bombay High Court on accessibility of suburban rail transport in the city is still pending, and many activists and professionals such as Sudhir Badami have placed their research on making the railways barrier-free in the public domain.

The Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission has already specified standards relating to low floor buses and corresponding bus stops, and these buses, while more expensive, are certainly available in India. Unfortunately, ‘new’ endeavours in the city are not keeping up with these ideas.

Access audits of the Mumbai Metro too reported that there was a lot to be desired. Even if these are rectified, the lack of first- and last-mile connectivity (for example, from one’s home to the railway station or bus stop) can be a deterrent for many persons with disabilities and their families.

The corporation can work towards improving the condition of pedestrian pathways (and in some places, creating them afresh) including the removal of obstructions and using tactile markings, which is beneficial to everyone. Recent attempts in this regard have borne fruit in Chennai with participative efforts from ITDP and Chennai Citi Connect, besides other organisations.

The engagement of unions of existing local transport options like autos and taxis is necessary to ensure some accessible options from amongst these, and again, appropriate incentives can ensure more drivers opting to provide accessible transport.

Points of access

Empathy education

The argument that infrastructure is a serious barrier to the participation of persons with disabilities is a compelling one, but the assumption that this is all that stands in the way of full inclusion of persons with disabilities may be slightly optimistic. Accessible physical spaces do not always lend comfort to a person with a psychosocial disability who would like to venture out into an area, or for a family of an autistic individual who fear insensitive reactions to the communication of their loved ones.

Mumbai is notoriously busy, and any kind of delay on account of a wheelchair stuck in a puddle, or trying to communicate with a person stammering, or even waiting for a blind person to disembark from a taxi, is met with frustration, anger and sometimes even violence. How do we solve this problem, which is a huge deterrent for people who want to have the confidence to explore this beautiful city just like everyone else?

We may have to start young for this: introducing disability sensitivity training in schools, in colleges, and among training for government employees (including contracted staff) and private sector service providers. The hope is that this sensitisation will trickle down to the families and friends of this person.

Another important tool in this regard is inclusive education, guaranteed under the amendment to the Right to Education Act in 2012, but denied in practice. Organisations in Mumbai, like the Ummeed Child Development Centre, have done tremendous work with parents and schools towards promoting inclusive education.

Sadly, multiple reports of schools refusing admission to students with disabilities, or subjecting admitted children to abuse and neglect, are rampant.

Inclusive education has the potential to transform societies, simply by allowing children from diverse backgrounds to grow up together, to understand differences, and more importantly, to understand accommodation of these differences.

Students with exposure to peers with disabilities can be architects of more inclusive and empathetic societies. The condition of special education in India is abysmal, and in Mumbai, recent reports of sustained sexual abuse of deaf girls from a prestigious ‘special school’ by the principal instil no confidence in that system as well.

Inclusive education that is substandard poses its own dangers of allowing children with disabilities to fall through the cracks, and so the city, and its parents and teachers, must work at creating a model for inclusive education that is meaningful and truly inclusive.

Creating communities

Persons with disabilities have the right to live in the community with the choice of supports that they may need for this. Unfortunately, with housing becoming expensive and exclusive, a dignified way of life with one’s impairments is becoming a struggle. Persons with disabilities face discrimination in housing, not unlike peers from other minorities.

From being told that it would be ‘inauspicious’ to see ‘such people’ every morning, to fears of blind patrons burning down their houses, to rents being too high to accommodate the additional unspoken cost of disability, accessible housing is just one of the issues that a family having a person with disability faces.

Organisations like the Bapu Trust for Body and Mind Discourse in Pune have found the promotion of inclusive and accepting communities to be much more feasible and genuine in urban slum areas of the city. While affordable housing is very much on the menu of city planning enthusiasts, the need to make this housing accessible is extremely important to allow for persons with disabilities to exercise choices in where they would want to live.

The temptation to make a few buildings fully accessible is strong, as opposed to making all affordable housing accessible. The former would lead to ghettoisation, and also discounts for an ageing population that might not need accessible infrastructure now, but ten years down the line might find it extremely useful.

Communities with services relating to rehabilitation, vocational training, sports, extra curricular activities etc will encourage the development of stronger relationships for persons with disabilities, even beyond the lifetimes of their primary caregivers. World over, the disability movement has worked towards deinstitutionalisation and is acutely aware of the vulnerability small urban families may have towards keeping their family members in ‘homes’ for the sake of care and treatment, particularly because of the lack of care options.

In expensive cities like Mumbai, where often the whole family makes financial contributions even in advanced ages, the loss of income that a caregiver faces can impact the family and force it to abandon their senior or disabled loved ones. The increase in the number of long-term care institutions across the country, observed by activists, is alarming.

Successful endeavours in urban community-based inclusion and rehabilitation must be identified and replicated with the help of local NGOs. The creation of a cadre of trained personal assistants, providing support to families who cannot afford such assistants on their own, and the recognition of family caregiving as ‘work’ and entitled to payment, are all-important steps in creating inclusive communities, particularly for persons who are facing high restrictions in participation.


AMBA SALELKAR is a lawyer focusing on disability law and policy with the Equals Centre for Promotion of Social Justice. The organisation works towards capacity building of stakeholders, legal harmonisation and budget advocacy towards realisation of the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. You can follow their work at @equalscpsj on Twitter.

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Printable version | Nov 22, 2021 11:40:23 AM |

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