BHUBANESWAR: A key element for empowering persons with disabilities (PwDs) is to ensure that they get easy access to public spaces and buildings. It not only protects their rights in terms of accessibility and inclusiveness, but lifts the spirit of the differently-abled while carrying out daily chores. When it comes to improving accessibility of the PwDs in public buildings, infrastructure and transportation, a large section of PwDs in the State have expressed disappointment over Government’s inability to enforce the law, 20 years on.
Despite the Persons with Disability Act coming into effect in 1995, the reality in Odisha speaks a different story. The Act advocates barrier-free access to the differently-abled. A majority of prominent buildings in Bhubaneswar do not have disabled-friendly toilets or ramps; spare wheelchairs or Braille signboards.
Highrises are bereft of auditory signals for the visually impaired persons and there are no reserved parking slots either. Let apart, sophisticated facilities, bright lighting and colour schemes, specially designed furniture and anti-skid tiling - that are required to make a public building completely barrier free, are a rare sight in the State Capital.
So far 50 buildings in Bhubaneswar have been identified under the Sugamya Bharat or Accessible India campaign, which will be retrofitted with easy access features for the physically challenged. In the first phase 13 buildings have been identified and `6.07 crore has been sanctioned by the Centre.
Disability rights activists argue that at least one percent of the total expenditure on a building is required for retrofitting it for the disabled. Modifying elevators, toilets, building ramps, installing low-level signage at corridors, separate parking, rest-shed and seating area apart from light management are basics essential to make a building accessible for PwDs.
“To begin with, the most important aspect that should be kept in mind while constructing a disabled-friendly structure is easy ‘exit route.’ How many buildings in Bhubaneswar or in the State are equipped to evacuate the physically challenged in case of an emergency condition like fire or earthquake,” noted disability rights activist Shruti Mohapatra said.
A number of victims of the 1999 super-cyclone of Erasama, who suffered minor disabilities, were crippled for life due to improper and chaotic evacuation, she added.
There is not much clarity as to what proportion of funds under Scheme for Implementation of Persons with Disabilities Act and Rashtriya Uchchatar Shiksha Abhiyan (RUSA) are to be utilised for a barrier free environment for PwDs. To add to the woes, most of the educational institutions do not have braille books, audio books or speech interpreters for education of the PwDs.
The newly christened Department of Social Security and Empowerment of PwDs (SSEPD) has come up with a tool kit which was launched by Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik on World Disability Day (December 3) this year.
“Executive agencies under the State Government will undertake construction activities, maintenance work as per the provisions in the tool kit,” Director SSEPD Mansi Nimbhal said. The tool kit or reference book for the agencies is however, a guide and the provisions in it are not a mandate. A majority of new constructions in the State are caring two-hoots for the provisions (accessibility for the PwDs) under the National Building Code, sources said.
On the other hand, the fund under Accessible India campaign, is yet to be sanctioned. The file is pending with the Finance Department and the SSEPD Department is awaiting for a supplementary provision from the former for sanctioning the Central Government funds. Even after the funds are sanctioned and the renovation happens, how comprehensive will the changes be, remains a million dollar question.
Disability is not homogeneous. The conditions involve hearing impaired, speech impaired, autistic and mentally challenged people. Unless all aspects are covered while renovating a building, there is little use of running campaigns and doing a touch-up work, Mohapatra added.