Lessons from Chennai on accessibility for the disabled
Indeed, one need only see the expressions of adults and children feeling the waves touch their toes for the first time to understand the profound importance of recreation.
Persons with disabilities in India face gross inequalities at every turn. The most fundamental of their needs—accessible public spaces—is most often an afterthought for planners, despite the provisions of the Rights of Persons with Disabilities Act of 2016. If persons with disabilities use any public spaces at all, it is more often than not in the absence of state efforts. However, one initiative of the Chennai Corporation that dates back to 2016 shows what is possible when the state considers diverse needs.
From 2016 to 2022 (barring a gap during the pandemic), the civic body, at the urging of disability rights activists, has created an accessible pathway to the city’s famous Marina Beach for at least one week every year. The temporary pathway is laid right up to the waters and beach wheelchairs are provided to those who would like to wet their feet. For most disabled people, the initiative is the first time they have even imagined such a thing possible. Joys that non-disabled people take for granted—sea breeze, sand in toes, the buoyancy of waves—are experienced by many for the very first time.
The Corporation had already committed to making the pathway a permanent structure—with environmental clearances—and the new DMK government recently renewed the commitment, signalling its respect for the right to recreation. Indeed, one need only see the expressions of adults and children feeling the waves touch their toes for the first time to understand the profound importance of recreation.
However, this is not enough. Too many public spaces remain inaccessible in Tamil Nadu and the rest of India. This includes other spaces of recreation such as movie theatres and museums. The Chennai Corporation’s effort, once permanent, deserves replication in other beaches across the country. Similarly, the TN government should ensure accessibility, the value of which was well understood by late DMK patriarch M Karunanidhi (a wheelchair user in his later years), is integrated in planning and construction in public buildings, spaces and transport services.