23-year-old Abhinav Nagar set out to explore this Christmas charm a couple of years ago in and around St James’ Church in Kashmere Gate, known to be the oldest surviving church in Delhi. Accompanying him were his three friends, all students from the same college, nurturing generous dreams of a grand future full of accomplishments. Nagar remembers chatting amiably with his friends and enjoying the cool breeze and the Christmas air. But what happened next changed their lives forever.
There was total blackness as a cow darted in front of their vehicle, forcing Nagar to lose control of the car completely and crash into a nearby lamp-post on the pavement. He hit his spine instantly and his friends were injured too. Nagar woke up the next day in hospital. He could not move either of his legs and his doctor told him that he could never walk again. At 23, Abhinav became wheelchair-bound, overnight, and his life changed forever.
This is not an isolated case of compulsive disability. There are hundreds and thousands of people all over the world witnessing their lives change all of a sudden due to a mishap, accident or some disease. But what we, the other half of the population who can walk, run, jump and enjoy life and every bit of it, do not realise is the pain these people experience everyday to walk that extra mile which once seemed impossible.
There are ambitions plans to turn Delhi into a smart city. But our national Capital is thoroughly devoid of a disabled-friendly infrastructure and basic sensitivity essential to make this place accessible to them too. There is a gross negativity prevailing for the differently-abled, who are always subjected to mercy of others for any kind of help or acceptance. It would thus be a great idea to create an infrastructure or give them an ambience that would not make it imperative for them to move around with someone else’s help or acceptance. A recently conducted study reveals that some of the city’s busiest places like Connaught Place, Lodhi Road, Sarai Kale Khan and Nehru Place are devoid of street infrastructure for the differently-abled and even for the elderly to navigate. These places are even inaccessible for those with reduced mobility, pregnant women, children, persons carrying luggage and those with temporary ailments.
Some of the key problems found at Connaught Place were lack of proper signages and audio signals, non-continuity of tactile pavers and pelican crossings. Footpath height and width varied at many places and there was lack of kerb ramps and pedestrian crossings in front of busy bus terminuses like the ISBT, coupled with open drains on footpaths and encroachments by hawkers.
Abha Khetarpal, president of NGO Cross the Hurdles says: “Essential services like banks, ATMs, post offices still remain inaccessible for the differently-abled. Even many of the doctors’ clinics and diagnostic centres are not disabled friendly. Schools do not have proper infrastructure to accommodate students with disabilities. Though public buildings, many stadiums might have ramps for wheelchair users to enter the premises but washrooms inside the campus are inaccessible. Personally speaking, I have found no washrooms for disabled people at Thyagraj stadium near INA market that was built as a venue for the 2010 Commonwealth Games.”
She further elaborates: “Movie theatres again are not friendly. ‘Disabled friendly’ does not mean just
a ramp being made outside the premises for wheelchair users. It must cater to the needs to all the different kind of disabilities. Tactile surfaces and Braille signage are rarely found. Many hotels and restaurants still remain unfriendly.”
The differently-abled also face insensitive behaviour of bus drivers and conductors, who many a times charge more than the designated fare, despite travel for the visually impaired being free in all state-run Delhi Transport Corporation (DTC) buses and the National Capital Region (NCR). But statistics show that this is not restricted to Delhi or the NCR area alone. The 70 million disabled in India face similar problems in other parts of the country too and, possibly, things are much worse. Transportation in every Indian city and town has failed disabled citizens to live a smooth and uncomplicated life. Lack of awareness, contempt and lapsed policies contribute to their plight. Though low floor buses in several metropolises including Delhi are initiatives for making transportation smooth, it has hardly come as a boon.
Javed Abidi, director, National Centre for Promotion of Employment for Disabled People in India mentions in a report: “Despite it being a norm, there are no ramps to get on to the bus stands in the national capital. It’s a shame that the DTC plays hoax on us by painting disabled-friendly pictures and signages at bus stops, as they never practice what they preach.” Unfortunately, there has been little done in this direction to address the issue.
Khetarpal adds: “No railway station in Delhi has a lift. Though the bus stops show the universal symbol of disability has broken ramps or are just unreachable due the rugged surfaces or the large number of street vendors and hawkers.”
Though many new pavements and sidewalks in most New Delhi Municipal Council and Municipal Corporation of Delhi (MCD) areas are spacious and well-laid, many of them are blocked by bollards or small iron posts through which a wheelchair can’t pass.
According to disabled rights organisations, the special ramps constructed on many roads have faulty designs and do not follow international standards. Ideally, for a height of one metre the ramps should be 18 metres long (1:18 gradient). But the ramps are built on a 1:12 gradient and are steep. Moreover, they also do not provide a landing after every five metres. Even the parks in the national capital are not disabled-friendly. Summed together, there are as many as 14,000 parks in total but all of them more or less lie in a state of shambles and do not support visitors with disabilities.
However, Mukesh Yadav, Public Relations Officer (PRO) of South MCD says: “Almost all our parks are disabled-friendly. All of them are at the ground level so there is particularly no need for a ramp. Also, there is one gate at the entrance of every park through which a wheelchair can easily enter.” But in reality, the story is a little different.
Kanika Dua, an MA Psychology student in Delhi University who is partially visually impaired, says: ‘I’m very lucky that the crowd in my university is very good. People do help and try to understand our problems. Cops are very helpful. But when I go out of the campus, it is a little difficult as I don’t know all the roads, there are no Braille signages and mobility becomes an issue.’
The Delhi Metro, often referred to as the lifeline of the national Capital, and rightly so, has stood the test of time in the last decade regarding performance. There is little doubt that the Metro has contributed in no small measure to taking Delhi and its infrastructural facilities to the next level! But this is just one side of the picture. Delhi Metro does seem ill-prepared not just for emergencies but also when it comes to helping the disabled with wheelchairs. The number of wheelchairs and stretchers at one of the busiest stations Rajiv Chowk, is limited to only three and five respectively!
Shopping arcades and malls in Delhi are considerably better in terms of providing a friendly ambience for the disabled. Sonali Manilal, Marketing Head, DLF Promenade says: “The mall has reserved parking for physically challenged and senior citizens in B1. The parking has been reserved next to the elevator lobby with dedicated parking attendants. For physically challenged patrons, the mall is equipped with a dedicated and customized hydraulic elevator; all prominent entrances have wheel chairs stationed with an attendant; each shopping floor houses washrooms for the disabled.”
In case of an emergency, she adds: “The staff is well trained in basic life saving skills and safety trainings. There is a medical room with bed and important medical equipment. The concierge is trained to use basic medical techniques and is always equipped with medical kit.”
But for the past few years, there is a growing political momentum behind the need to take disability provision seriously.
If available figures are to be believed, people with disabilities are more likely to be unemployed, illiterate, to have less formal education and less access to support networks. They are further isolated by discrimination, ignorance and prejudice. The World Bank estimates that about 20 per cent of the world’s poorest people are disabled. Poverty causes disability through inadequate access to medical treatment and vaccinations, and exposure to unsanitary and unsafe living and working conditions. Children with disabilities in India rarely progress beyond primary education, with school enrolment less than 10 per cent in many areas. This then reinforces social alienation and leads to very limited employment opportunities, leading to abject poverty.
A universal barrier-free environment is every Indian’s dream. Reassuringly, a few have been lobbying for it for some time now, working towards creating and maintaining environments in which all people can participate in ways that are equitable, dignified, independent and safe for all. Obstacles of any kind affect the lives of people to a great extent, and it is not difficult to imagine the plight of millions of disabled people who face hurdles at every single step.