New Delhi: According to experts, ‘accessibility’ is one of the most important concerns facing persons with disabilities which has been further aggravated due to the COVID-19 pandemic and the restrictions imposed because of it. The pandemic which has affected everyone over the past two years has come down harshly upon persons with disabilities, many of whom were already suffering from poverty, the direct results of an inaccessible environment, say experts. While the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development states that disability cannot be a reason or criteria for lack of access to development programmes and the realisation of human rights, in India, there is still a lot that needs to be done to implement this. Here is what accessibility mean for the persons with disabilities:
Who Is A Person With Disability?
The World Health Organization (WHO) defines ‘Disability’ as “an umbrella term, covering impairments, activity limitations, and participation restrictions. Impairment is a problem in body function or structure; an activity limitation is a difficulty encountered by an individual in executing a task or action; while a participation restriction is a problem experienced by an individual in involvement in life situations. Thus, disability is a complex phenomenon, reflecting an interaction between features of a person’s body and features of the society in which he or she lives.”
In India, according to the Population Census 2011, there are over 2.68 crore people are with disabilities which is almost 2.21 per cent of the total population.
With an objective of empowering persons with disabilities in the country, in 2007, India ratified the United Nations Conventions on the Rights of Persons with Disability (UNCRPD), 2006. The UNCRPD is a comprehensive document accepted internationally aimed at setting a framework for its member countries to protect the rights of the persons with disabilities. India has also passed a special legislation, the Rights of Persons with Disability (RPwD) Act, 2016, through the Department of Empowerment of Persons with Disabilities (DEPwD), Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment, to align the disability legislation at par with standards envisioned by the UNCRPD.
Here is the list of 21 disabilities that have been identified under the RPwD Act, 2016 of India:
• Leprosy Cured persons
• Hearing Impairment (deaf and hard of hearing)
• Locomotor Disability
• Intellectual Disability
• Mental Illness
• Autism Spectrum Disorder
• Cerebral Palsy
• Muscular Dystrophy
• Chronic Neurological condition
• Specific Learning Disabilities
• Multiple Sclerosis
• Speech and Language disability
• Sickle Cell disease
• Multiple Disabilities including deaf-blindness
• Acid Attack victims
• Parkinson’s disease
Accessibility For Persons With Disabilities
According to Subhash Chandra Vashishth, Advocate, Disability Rights, who is also an accessibility expert, the term ‘accessibility’ that an infrastructure, product or service is built or modified in such a way that it can be used by everyone regardless of age, gender or abilities, however they encounter it. He said,
An accessible environment is built on the principles of Inclusive or Universal Design. Universal Design is the design and composition of the environment so it can be accessed, understood and used to the greatest extent possible by all people regardless of age, size, ability or disability.
Article 9 of the UNCRPD is the accessibility clause that mandates all the Member States to take all possible steps to enable persons with disabilities to live independently and participate fully in all aspects of life.
The Government of India first enacted the “Persons with Disabilities (Equal Opportunities, Protection of Rights and Full Participation) Act in 1996. The Act provided for “building a barrier-free environment which enables people with disabilities to move about safely and freely and supports the independent functioning of individuals so that they can get to, and participate without assistance, in everyday activities such as procurement of goods and services, community living, employment, and leisure.”
In 2015, the Government of India rolled out the ‘Accessible India’ (Sugamya Bharat Abhiyan) campaign, with an objective of providing features of accessibility in three spheres: Built-up environment, transportation sector and Information and Communication Technology ecosystem, for creation of a universal barrier-free environment in urban and rural areas. The campaign is governed under the RPwD Act, 2016 and started being implemented from 2017. The campaign targets to achieve its objectives in five years (by 2022).
Chapter 6 of the Rights of Persons with Disabilities Act, 2016, specifically refers to the ease of access to public or private buildings, workplaces, commercial activities, public utilities, religious, cultural, leisure or recreational activities, medical or health services, law enforcement agencies, transport infrastructure, among others.
According to experts, while the provisions exist in law, accessibility, in practice, is missing. Muralidharan Vishwanath, general secretary, National Platform for the Rights of Disabled (NPRD) highlighted that there are hardly any studies to identify the need of the community at a micro-level. He said,
Unless a micro-level assessment of the needs of the persons with disabilities is done, projects such as ‘Accessible India’ campaign may not achieve the desired objectives and there are risks of misallocation as well as mis-utilisation of funds. Studies can help formulate a roadmap for disabled-friendly city planning.
Accessibility To Buildings
In terms of physical built-environment, accessibility means that persons with disabilities can reach all places, enter all places and use all facilities with dignity and with equal basis with others, said Mr Vashishth. In March 2016, the Ministry of Urban Development issued the Harmonised Guidelines and Space Standards for Barrier Free Built Environment for Persons With Disabilities and Elderly Persons. According to Mr Vashishth, as per provisions of the Rights of Persons with Disabilities Act, 2016, all public buildings and spaces are being audited as per these Guidelines and the gaps identified are being remedied by the government under the Accessible India Campaign. He added that even the private spaces that are open to the public are also bound by the law and have to meet the deadline of being modified and retrofitted with measures of accessibility by June 2022. He said,
The public places, buildings, healthcare centres, offices and transportation systems need to be built, tendered and older ones retrofitted to meet the accessibility mandate under the Rights of Persons with Disabilities Act. For instance, step-free and levelled access to buildings, where vertical rise/ level changes are there- they need to be addressed by a comfortable gradient ramp with handrails., wider doors, colour contrast, signages, accessible toilets and washrooms, fire and emergency system also meet the needs of all categories of users such as those with disabilities of vision, hearing and speech, locomotion, cognition among others.
The Central Public Works Department (CPWD) released the Harmonised Guidelines and Standards for Universal Accessibility in India 2021 through its website in December 2021. The guidelines are a revision of the 2016 guidelines but have not yet been notified under the Rights of Persons with Disabilities Rules, therefore the 2021 guideline is not the standard to be followed as of the date and the 2016 one is still operational.
According to the Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment, 1,524 buildings including hospitals across the country have been made accessible by providing accessibility features such as ramps, lifts, toilets, parking, among others, as of November 2021. These include 1,030 Central Government buildings and 494 buildings in States/UTs.
Accessibility Of Mobility
The Rights of Persons with Disabilities Act, 2016, mandates the government to ensure access to all modes of transport that conform with design standards, including retrofitting old modes wherever technically feasible and safe for persons with disabilities and that people of all abilities are able to use the transportation services and system with dignity and independence. This includes buses, rail, airports and aeroplanes, ports and ships, taxis and paratransit and the street design that allows continuous and barrier-free walkability/ wheelability for persons with disabilities with suitably graded ramps, signages, handrails, tactile pavers for orientation of blind users among others. According to Mr Muralidharan Vishwanath, there are a number of fundamental design thinking issues when it comes to addressing the accessibility of mobility issues. He said,
While there is a need to increase the number of low-floor buses and buses with foldable ramps along with ensuring last-mile connectivity but we cannot ignore that bus stands are required to be accessible too. Everywhere the heights of the bus stands are more than the heights of the buses. The wheelchair access ramps at bus stands are blocked by advertisement boards. Most of the time, buses do not stop at designated areas close to the bus stop.
He also highlighted that at many places even in metro cities like Delhi, people with disabilities find it difficult to crossroads due to the lack of ramps and elevators on the foot over bridges.
These may look like minor issues that can be addressed easily. But, this has not been the case because these issues are required to be identified and funds are needed to be allocated. Accessibility audits are required to be done of our road and connectivity infrastructure, and transportation system. For example, a barrier or sounding object to warn visually impaired persons should be provided under stairways or escalators. Proper headroom is required in the walkways, halls, corridors, passageways, aisles, to minimise the risk of accidents. Guiding Braille indicators at railway platforms and railings to identify platform numbers and facilities, Braille General Signs for facilities like a male-female toilet, Braille Maps and information booklets at the Enquiry counters are some of the examples of how our current transportation system can become more accessible for the persons with disabilities.
According to the data provided by the Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment, all 35 international and 55 out of 69 domestic airports have been provided with features of accessibility, 1,391 railway stations across the country out of over 7,000 have been modified to increase accessibility for the persons with disabilities. Out of 1,47,368 operational buses owned by 62 State Transport Undertakings, 42,169 (28.61 per cent) buses were made partially accessible and 10,175 (6.90 per cent) were made fully accessible, as per the MoSJE.
Accessibility To Media
The RPwD Act, 2016 mandates the government to take appropriate steps to make Information and Communication Technology (ICT) available to persons with disability in an accessible format. In December 2021, The Ministry of Information and Broadcasting announced that it is in the process to get the “Accessibility Standards for Television Programmes for Hearing Impaired” notified under the Rights of Persons with Disabilities Act, 2016 to make television content more inclusive for persons with hearing disabilities. As per the standards, service providers “are required to deliver sub-titles/closed captioning/ sign language across specified television programmes in order to ensure access by hearing-impaired to such television programmes”. However, the service providers or broadcasters will have the right to choose any one or more options from “Closed Captioning, Subtitles, Open Captioning and/or Sign Language”, as they feel will be most suited to the format of the programme and requirement of the viewers.
For sign language interpretation, the ministry has asked that channels and broadcasters “should be encouraged to provide it in a manner that the viewer can see not only the hands but also, where applicable, the facial expressions of the signer”.
Meenakshi Balasubramanian, founder, Equals – Center for Promotion of Social Justice, a Chennai-based organisation that works for the rights of persons with disabilities highlighted that with no sign language interpreters during the press briefs, people with hearing impairment are denied an opportunity to understand important information from the prime minister or health minister or the chief minister of the states, especially about the pandemic, its safety measures, lockdown guidelines, also during elections, and general day-to-day developments.
Virtual accessibility also includes ensuring access to websites. Assistive tech solutions and artificial intelligence play a crucial role in this. For example, the Speech Recognition technology can help persons with various kinds of disabilities like locomotor disorders, visual impairments use computers and access the internet. Action Blocks by Google is another example, which lets people with cognitive disabilities add pictures to the home screen of an Android phone and touching a picture prompts the Google Assistant to activate a corresponding action, such as calling someone, booking a ride or ordering a pizza, or even to turn on lights. This can help provide easier access to everyday uses of smartphones for people who find speech commands or reading and entering text challenging.
As per the MoSJE data, 95 Centrel Government websites and 588 out of more than 5,000 State/UT Government websites have been made accessible with features for a screen reader, colour contrast, translation, font size control, among others. More than 1250 Sign Language Interpreters have been trained by the Indian Sign Language Research and Training Center through long-term, short-term and professional courses for improving ICT accessibility for persons with hearing impairment, says MoSJE.
Accessibility To Social Services
While talking about accessibility to important social services like education, Ms Balasubramanian said that while the National Education Policy refers to the RPwD Act, 2016, it does not provide any roadmap for making education easier to access. She said,
Education is a right of a person but as per the 2011 Census, as many as 45.48 per cent of PwDs are illiterate. It shows how big is the problem of accessibility to education. The 2016 Act does provide for inclusive education by mandating admitting children in government schools without discrimination, making school infrastructure freely accessible, providing educational material and assistive devices to children with disabilities for free of cost. However, currently, almost everywhere in India public schools are relying on the home-education model for students with disabilities. This not only keeps children from being in the school environment and getting an opportunity to interact with other children but also keep them away from social protection schemes like Mid-Day Meals.
Nipun Malhotra, co-founder and CEO of Nipman Foundation and founder, Wheels For Life who was born with a locomotor disability called arthrogryposis because of which he is completely dependent on attendants for my basic needs such as getting out of bed, showering, dressing among others highlighted that persons with disabilities access to health is still a challenge in the country. There are very few options of health insurance as disabilities are considered as ‘pre-existing health conditions’ and on top of it GST on assistive devices for the disabled like wheelchairs, hearing aids and even important medicines that are required for survival for many are making the situation even more difficult for people with disabilities, he said. Mr Malhotra added,
We are not asking for a dedicated hospital or a dedicated ward because that will not solve any problem. All we are asking is to make the health infrastructure and health related information easily accessibly for persons with disabilities.
According to experts, it is critical that the governments work with experts, civil society and individuals with disabilities to create a holistic accessibility environment in the country where everyone feels welcome and treated with respect, regardless of their abilities. Ms Balasubramanian said that even little efforts like having accessible pavements, buses, workplaces and public spaces make a world of difference as people with disabilities spend a lot on commuting simply because the infrastructure is not inclusive. Experts emphasised that an accessible environment must be seen as a right that allows a person to live a better-quality life.
NDTV – Dettol have been working towards a clean and healthy India since 2014 via the Banega Swachh India initiative, which is helmed by Campaign Ambassador Amitabh Bachchan. The campaign aims to highlight the inter-dependency of humans and the environment, and of humans on one another with the focus on One Health, One Planet, One Future – Leaving No One Behind. It stresses on the need to take care of, and consider, everyone’s health in India – especially vulnerable communities – the LGBTQ population, indigenous people, India’s different tribes, ethnic and linguistic minorities, people with disabilities, migrants, geographically remote populations, gender and sexual minorities. In wake of the current COVID-19 pandemic, the need for WASH (Water, Sanitation and Hygiene) is reaffirmed as handwashing is one of the ways to prevent Coronavirus infection and other diseases. The campaign will continue to raise awareness on the same along with focussing on the importance of nutrition and healthcare for women and children, fight malnutrition, mental wellbeing, self care, science and health, adolescent health & gender awareness. Along with the health of people, the campaign has realised the need to also take care of the health of the eco-system. Our environment is fragile due to human activity, which is not only over-exploiting available resources, but also generating immense pollution as a result of using and extracting those resources. The imbalance has also led to immense biodiversity loss that has caused one of the biggest threats to human survival – climate change. It has now been described as a “code red for humanity.” The campaign will continue to cover issues like air pollution, waste management, plastic ban, manual scavenging and sanitation workers and menstrual hygiene. Banega Swasth India will also be taking forward the dream of Swasth Bharat, the campaign feels that only a Swachh or clean India where toilets are used and open defecation free (ODF) status achieved as part of the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan launched by Prime Minister Narendra Modi in 2014, can eradicate diseases like diahorrea and the country can become a Swasth or healthy India.