Awaiting the right move
Persons with Disabilities and activists share their grievances on inaccessibility at the ongoing Chess Olympiad and how it could have been made better
CHENNAI: Among the many visitors to the hugely successful Chess Olympiad 2022 was Balanagendran, a visually-challenged employee at the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, whose experience was sobering, to put it mildly. Upon getting off his vehicle, he was asked to go to Gate 5 by security personnel. When asked where Gate 5 was, he was told it was “there”.
As he went about in search of “there”, he arrived at what he felt was the venue, since it had a metal gate. But the hurdles weren’t over yet. He first had to go past a metal slab and cables strewn across the floor before he could get to safety. And there was no one who would guide him inside.
A frustrated Balanagendran shared his experience on Facebook and managed to ignite, at least in social media circles, conversations around how the event, which has won a lot of acclaim for the way in which it was organised in such short notice, was a bit of a let down when it came to accessibility. And this is no one-off incident. The idea of inclusive public spaces with a view to accommodating Persons with Disabilities (PwDs) is either ignored or, at best, an afterthought, and instances like these are commonplace.
Lack of Intent
Smitha Sadasivam of the Disability Rights Alliance (DRA) had several concerns surrounding the event in terms of its inclusivity. In particular, she rues the lack of concrete information regarding how differently-abled people could move around the venue. “The problem is not that there are no measures taken. They do have ramps installed at various places, but they don’t really add up to anything when it comes to ensuring smooth navigation for a differently-abled person.”
Even the installed ramps were too steep to be accessed single-handedly, something Satish Kumar, another DRA member and wheelchair user realised when he paid a visit to the venue. Despite owning a motorised wheelchair, he ended up having to seek help from a passer-by. “This is an international event, with visitors and participants coming in from different countries, and the accessibility should also have been up to international standards.
When they could spend so much on specially designed autos and others, why not on accessibility? This could have been achieved at just a fraction of the cost,” he remarks. He was particularly miffed that no proper information was available when it came to how persons with disabilities could navigate the venue. At a time when tactile and braille markings are commonly used for large-scale events to assist the visually-challenged, neither of these could be found at the venue.
“There are ramps placed here and there, but there is a lack of co-ordination. Neither the guards nor the volunteers have been sensitised to assist people with special needs. There are helping counters, but how is a visually-challenged person to find out where it is?” asks Balanagendran.
Vaishnavi Jayakumar of the Freedom of Movement Coalition expresses concern about the tone-deafness in some of the publicity campaigns surrounding the event. The painting of the Napier bridge to resemble a chessboard, she said, felt like being in a video game and could actually send someone into an epileptic seizure. “The TN government has put in a lot of hard work and put together this whole thing (the Olympiad) in a matter of four months, which is great.
But when you could do so much and spend a lot of money on this, why not go the distance in terms of accessibility? It won’t cost a lot of money, just a little thought,” she points out. More could have been done to make the event more disabled-friendly, adds Smitha. “They already pay extra in terms of specialised equipment depending on their needs to get to the venue, so it would have been great if the entry fee were subsidised,” she feels.
Even transport facilities were found wanting when it came to catering to the differently-abled. “There are organisations like Vidya Sagar in Chennai with their own fleet of vehicles that meet accessibility requirements. The government could have partnered with such organisations in providing vehicles for the differently-abled,” Satish adds. Even the tourist spots nearby, he felt, could have used the opportunity to upgrade themselves to include accessibility features.
Local talents sidelined?
Also notable was a glaring absence of special games for the visually impaired. “Why not make the Olympiad an opportunity for local players with disabilities to play their hand just as a side event? When disability is taken seriously by the current government which is a welcome approach, we again see the same pattern of disability worked out in silos and not really looked at with a real inclusive approach across the board, in all domains like sports, art, culture, education, health, trade, youth, gender etc.,” she says.
The invisibilisation of the PwDs, as participants and audience, in the sporting scene at large happens to be a pet peeve with Vaishnavi as well. “The country is full of cricket fans, yet it is impossible for a visually-impaired person to follow a cricket match. Radio commentaries back in the day gave a more complete picture verbally, whereas in television commentary, a lot of the visual description is left out,” she notes.
The larger picture
From chess and other sports, the idea of accessibility is one that is yet to infiltrate most areas of public life in India. Even in a five-star hotel, Vaishnavi says, one might find at best one room that is designed with persons with disabilities in mind, so a second person with a disability will have to look elsewhere for a room. “When we hold our own events, we make it a point to ask delegates registering for an event if they have any specific requirements. These are small gestures that can make a huge difference,” she adds.
Accessible transport and accessible infrastructure can make a huge difference to the PwDs; in fact, countries with accessibility in place report a thrice-fold improvement in living standards among the PwDs, Satish notes. “As a wheelchair user, I should be able to move in public without depending on someone else. The fact that I have to makes me think twice about stepping out,” he says.
Chess is the kind of game where a visually-impaired person can compete with a grandmaster like Viswanathan Anand, making it more inclusive than a lot of other games, added Balanagendran. That an event surrounding this game failed to be as inclusive came to him as a disappointment, as much as it did to other PwDs as well.