CHENNAI: It is just 15mm of difference that could be the deciding factor: can I manage on my own or do I need assistance? Can the wheelchair manoeuvre over the step or does it need to be manually lifted to pass through?
From getting out of bed in the morning, heading to the bathroom, cooking a meal, coming out of the house and travelling to office, the obstacles arise at almost every stage of their schedule for persons with disability (PwD). While social stigma, access to employment and general awareness are one part of the issue, a basic human right — physical access to their urban environment — still remains a distant dream for many, though this is a problem that can be tackled with better design practices. From home, transport, public spaces, schools offices — barriers to independent movement creep in at every stage.
Accessibility begins at home — and in Meenakshi Balasubramanian and Rajiv Rajan’s apartment, a ramp takes you to the door, wide enough to allow easy movement of a wheelchair. The bathrooms have grab rails and low-height toilet fixtures, the kitchen counter can be used while seated, the floors are anti-skid and the cupboards have pull down hangers. But the arrival at this accessible house was not easy.
“We have moved many rented houses, and have had difficulties with owners not wanting to give a house to a couple with physical disability. They are worried about liabilities, or reactions of neighbours,” says Meenakshi.
Most ground floor houses have at least one step to climb, a hurdle that the couple has learnt to live with. When they looked for a house, many builders were unwilling to customise the house with wider doors and anti-skid flooring, until they finally found a known builder who agreed to customise. Today, she is able to use crutches to move around the house, and the gradual slope of the ramp allows both of them to use the wheelchair independently.
But where are the footpaths?
Stepping out of their home brings forth the next gigantic issue that all PwDs face — transport. “We do not want to be restricted to our homes. We want to go out and earn our living like anyone else,” says Rajiv, who works at the NGO Vidya Sagar while Meenakshi has her own disability rights centre, Equals. The first barrier hits when they exit their gate — it is a choice between no footpaths and bad footpaths.
Their house is in Perumbakkam, and the nearest bus stop is around 1.8 km away, with not even a semblance of a footpath until there. Even if they go to the bus stop, there is no schedule of the so-called ‘disabled-friendly’ buses, which usually just have a creaky wheelchair, and the ramp for entry and exit is usually non-functional. The nearest local train stations are inaccessible with no ramps and non-functional lifts, and there’s no way to get into the train unless lifted.
“That’s why we use private transport; because we have no choice,” adds Rajiv.
They earlier used autos or three-wheelers, and Meenakshi is now learning to drive an adapted car, though she does not seem too proud of it. “What I have turned to is an individual solution. I would much rather use public transport,” she says, as she controls the accelerator and break using her hand. Vehicles behind her honk but she is calm. “I am very scared of speeding,” she laughs.
Fasting before train-travel
Travelling out of town is another battle — Rajiv says when he used to take long train journeys for work, he would start fasting even before leaving home, and not eat or drink throughout the journey, as the train toilets are unusable. “I only go on train journeys that are for 12 hours or less, so that I needn’t worry about the toilet,” says Meenakshi.
The disabled-friendly compartment is usually filled with unreserved passengers. There is no ramp to get into the compartment and toilets have poor standards. “We don’t even travel for leisure, it’s always for work. But probably, when we like what we are doing, then it is not considered work,” she adds.
The digital era has helped in some situations, like online shopping. “Today, I buy most things online including groceries, because every shop usually has at least one step,” she says. Before online shopping, they never had the luxury of selecting their own clothes. “We may want to go to a store for shopping or buy from a grocery store rather than online. But it is not easy,” she avers.
A simple need like an ATM too is out of reach because of steps and narrow doors, and makes them dependent on trusted friends. “The banks even denied us ATM cards because we’d be unable to use the machine and giving our details to someone is a security issue. Isn’t this a basic right?” asks Rajiv. He cites another example — he was not allowed to enter some temples without removing his shoes. “My shoes are an assistive device, for me it is like a part of my body. How can I remove them?”
‘Cheaper to stay home’
Though they miss many social gatherings, weddings or shopping, work keeps them busy. On reaching her office in a co-working space, which she has selected to be able to navigate with least dependence, Meenakshi switches to a wheelchair as the distances are longer and the floors slippery.
“I don’t know why smooth floors are considered the best — maybe they look good and are easy to clean, but aren’t there rougher surfaces that could also work well?” she wonders. The automatic doors let her through, but where there are pushing or pulling doors, she needs help.Accessibility cannot be compartmentalised, they believe. Unless the full path from home to public transport to public spaces, educational institutions and workplaces are all made accessible, the daily cycle will be a battle. “Sometimes, with all the effort we need to put, it feels like it is cheaper to sit at home than go to work. But we want to be a regular working members contributing to society,” they say.
Must-have for People With Disabilities
WHO calculates that ‘two-thirds of disabled people are over 60. Ageing is often accompanied by some form of disability— the accessible environment is thus becoming a necessity for a larger section of the population than ever before. What’s ‘must-have’ for an inclusive environment?
Ramps and elevators
- Doors widths sufficient to allow wheelchair access
- Disabled friendly toilets with a good standard of design
- Automatic doors, Sliding doors or push-doors which have vehicle breaks
- Non-slippery flooring
- In old buildings, retrofitting measures can be stair-lifts( we can use picture if possible, as awareness is low in India. I’ve attached samples), ramps and hydraulic elevators