Movement is a law of nature and life, and mobility is a basic human right. Mobility is the articulation of movement in the human ecosystem. One of the major consequences of the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic is the loss of free movement in space-time, which was formerly not only taken for granted but more often than not perceived as a burden, apart from when it was undertaken for leisure. So while the daily commute was regarded as stressful, tourism developed around the right to mobility-for-pleasure. Work from home and online classes have made many people look with nostalgia at the daily commute. Travel for pleasure, at least for the moment, has become a distant dream for a majority of people in many parts of the world.
For people with disabilities, mobility has always been a luxury. In addition to the movement constraints imposed by their particular physical, sensory, or communication limitations, society has not considered it necessary for them to be able to move freely. Throughout history and continuing today, being sequestered at home has been considered the best option for people with disabilities in popular thinking. Public transport and the built environment have posed insurmountable barriers, not only to leaving home, but also to their opportunities for health education, employment and leisure. The obstacles to mobility are a violation of a basic human right given that mobility, particularly in the urban landscape, signifies freedom, opportunity and empowerment. Consequently creating and promoting accessibility is a corner-stone of the disability rights movement.
There are over 80 million people with disabilities in India. Lack of mobility is one of the major barriers in their lives in both urban and rural areas, severely limiting their opportunities to lead a minimally decent and dignified life. One important component of the Accessible India Campaign launched in 2015 is to ensure that all government programmes, such as the Smart City Mission, are responsive to the needs of people with disabilities. This means ensuring ease of access to public and private buildings, workplaces, commercial activities, public utilities, religious, cultural, leisure or recreational activities, health services, law enforcement agencies, transport infrastructure, etc. Accessibility features have been added to building laws and the Rights of Persons with Disabilities Act 2016 mandates strict adherence to accessibility norms. The aim is not only to make public spaces, buildings and transport disabled-friendly, but also to actively deploy technology, particularly information technology, in order to make physical and social infrastructure more inclusive of the disabled population.
Universal accessibility of the city for people with disabilities is envisaged as an important criterion for the Smart City status. The specific objectives of the Smart City Mission for persons with disabilities are to ensure access to pathways, junctions, footpaths, bus shelters, crossings and public transportation so that they have freedom of movement in buildings, parks, playgrounds, schools, colleges, hospitals, recreational areas, public toilets, etc. While the thinking behind such policy initiatives is laudable, they are often formulated without a sound understanding of the practical needs and aspirations of the target population at the micro-level. And when that group happens to be a heterogeneous group, as is the case for people with disabilities, it can lead to warped planning and mis-utilisation of scarce resources.
As a flâneur with low vision negotiating the urban landscape of Delhi on foot and using public transport for over 20 years, I have seen the capital of India wake up to the reality of the existence of people with disabilities on the street. There is definitely a discourse of physical accessibility in the governance structure, but it is patchy and fragmented. Apart from islands of disabled-friendly infrastructure in specific sites like the metro, the airport and up-market convention centres and malls, for the most part footpaths are pot-holed and uneven, roads are impossible to cross, buildings have steps as the only means of entry and ascent, and street lighting is a luxury. Rampant construction and haphazard encroachments make pavements (wherever they exist) dangerous. Unruly traffic, reckless driving and a motley of vehicles like cars, scooters, bikes, and bullock-carts are life-threatening for all road-users. What is even more disturbing than the lack of awareness surrounding the issue among the general public is the sheer callous disregard for life in general and safety in particular. In a scenario where people respond to events like road accidents and other unfortunate occurrences by video-recording and sharing on social media, instead of helping the victims, the mobility concerns of vulnerable groups such as people with disabilities are unlikely to be a priority.
Yes, there are low-floor buses plying on roads in cities like Delhi, but there is no connection between the height of the bus stand and the height of the bus. Bus drivers rarely park the bus in the designated slot at the bus stop; the resulting lack of alignment between the curb and the bus step makes it impossible for wheelchair users to enter the bus. In my years of travelling on buses, I have never seen a wheelchair user. What is even more distressing is that bus drivers often do not observe the prescribed speed limits and duration at stops. And then there is the unruly behavior of passengers pushing and shoving to climb aboard. In such a scenario, how can a person with disability use affordable public transport?
The much-vaunted ramps installed in buildings are often more dangerous than the steps because the incline does not follow any standard specifications. Many a time the ramp is in some obscure corner of a building, far from the entrance. While elevators in the metro, fancy hotels and some government buildings have audio-signage, it is missing in most other places including hospitals, government offices and supermarkets.
In such a scenario, no wonder one sees few people with disabilities on the streets in cities like Delhi. Indeed, their lack of visibility is put forward as a reason for not investing in accessible infrastructure. Many stereotypes and pre-suppositions also play a role in ensuring that the needs of people with disabilities are given short shrift. Examples include the assumption that their family will take care of them under all circumstances; or that they cannot work, so why should they leave their homes? Pity, paternalism, lack of knowledge about disability, general apathy and the absence of strong voices from the disability community play a role in configuring accessibility more as a luxury than as a basic necessity for people with disabilities.
The impact of physical barriers on the personality of those experiencing them cannot be imagined. The trauma of not being able to read the screen at the airport because the print is too small and everyone around is so hurried that one cannot ask for assistance; the shame at having to be carried like a baby by strangers in places where wheelchairs cannot go; the discomfort at being unable to use the washroom because there is no accessible toilet in the vicinity; the indignity of having to be strip-searched at airports if one is wearing a prosthesis; the agony of a deaf person not being able to report a crime to the police because there is no one available to sign. These are the routine experiences. These may look like minor issues that can be addressed easily at minimal extra cost. However, this has not been the case, because addressing them not only requires some more funding and reworking of priorities in planning and implementation – more importantly it requires a re-orientation in understanding and thinking on the part of those in power. Most school and hospital administrators, police personnel and municipal functionaries have not been mandatorily sensitized to the issue, and even when they have been introduced to it, it is done only in passing.
There is need for concerted action to ensure disabled-friendly city planning by providing universal accessibility to the people with disabilities, so that they can avail of the opportunities available to all urbanites.
Renu Addlakha is a Professor in the Centre for Women’s Development Studies, New Delhi, India.
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