CHENNAI: Special rooms on the ground floor and door-delivery of food — these are not the sympathy-reservations that students and disability activists want when they study at college hostels. An inclusive set up with the ‘whole package’ of the college experience is what they say is the next step to make university education accessible to the differently abled.
“Most hostels claim they are disabled-friendly, as they deliver food at the room. This is not inclusion. Eating along with the others at the mess is part of hostel life,” says Bharathi Sekhar, Director Operations for Ability Foundation, which has come up with a new programme for accessible university education.
Many college hostels in the city, students say, usually have at least a few steps to climb, and lifts are rare. “In our hostels, we have a separate block with rooms on the ground floor reserved for the differently-abled. These are located such that they are closer to the mess and the bathrooms,” says Haroon R, a visually challenged student, who had stayed at the hostel in Loyola College.
Ramps and lifts though, are available only in the academic blocks.
Wheelchair access proves to be another difficulty, with toilets and lifts not usually being large enough, and ramps having slopes that are far too steep.
A Nesakumaran from Salem, a BE student at Anna University who is wheelchair bound, says that there is a ramp at his hostel but he cannot use it independently, because of the steep gradient.
“Using the toilets is also difficult as the doors are narrow, and the same is the case with the mess. It is only because of the help of my friends that I am able to move around,” he says.
This, he adds, also deters people to come from small towns to the city to study, while some tend to drop out midway.
“I have visited several colleges in the city, and have always had difficulties. They usually accommodate me on the ground floor,” says Preethi S, a paraplegic, who runs a positive ability organisation called Soulfree. “We do not want to be alienated by just being asked to use what is downstairs.”
Due to the non-differently abled friendly buildings, even those with temporary problems have to bear the brunt.
Sneha S, a student in the city, who had a surgery, was advised not to climb stairs. However, since her hostel did not leave her with any other option, she had to endure three flights of stairs in order to go to classes every day.
While the laws for accessibility for the disabled are in place, it is the implementation that goes wrong.
According to the National Building Code, the rules that all public buildings need to follow for universal access include a maximum slope of 1 in 12, which means to climb one metre the ramp needs to be 12 m long. Besides this, there are specifications for the handrails, floor material and turning radius. Door widths, window design and sizes for toilets and elevators are also all specified.
“The laws are all there. It is just about the intent. With all the money that colleges make, they can easily implement it,” says Preethi. Physical access being one very significant part, Ability Foundation seeks to look beyond this and also include things like sign language training for persons employed on the campus and relaxation of hostel rules to allow access for the visually challenged to laptops and tutors. The programme would offer 50 scholarships on merit basis for persons with special needs, to enrol in Satyabama University for various courses, all costs fully covered. “We have made the extra effort here, and we hope others would use it as a model,” says Bharathi.