Conversation about Accessibility for Persons with Disabilities
Interview by: Anhad Hundal
Score by: Inder Pal Singh
2.21% of the Indian population has a disability; that is almost 3 crore people. However, according to the World Bank, this number is anywhere between 4-8 crores. These disputed numbers highlight a larger issue of disability which is complex, dynamic, multidimensional and contested.
India has the highest number of people with disabilities in the world, and people between the ages of 10-19 make up a majority of this demographic.
This first podcast in a series on Disability in India engages with this complexity as Anhad Hundal speaks to Shorya Sood about his experiences navigating the city of Delhi. Shorya was diagnosed with Cerebral Palsy at an early age and uses a wheelchair. He is currently a student at Delhi University.
AH: What have been your experiences with dealing with moving around the city?
SS: I've been travelling independently to my college for the last 5 years, but it is just the metro that I have found accessible. But after that, there is a problem of accessibility. Like there are no restaurants which are accessible. So, like most of the public places I face this problem, that is why I cannot go out with my friends to various places. So yes, there are a lot of accessibility issues.
SS: Also, there is no planning or sensitivity towards the issue of persons with disability in this regard. Footpaths are constructed in such a way that a person on a wheelchair cannot maneuver. As a result of which, a person like me feels safer to go on roads than on the footpaths.
AH: Where you live, do you usually take a car to the metro station, and then get on the metro?
SS: No. My house is 400-500 metres from the metro station. So I independently go from my house to the metro station. Earlier, I was in Venky (Sri Venkateswara College), and for 3 years I travelled to the Dhaula Kuan metro station on the Ring Road, encountering heavy traffic. So, I had to move on the opposite side. I used to feel that going on the footpath was very unsafe, so I always used to travel on the roads. This was also difficult because I had to maneuver from the heavy traffic. Over here, although the footpaths are better constructed, there are still places where there is no space or, in between, there are potholes, which makes it very difficult for me to go independently. But, I don’t want anyone's help, so I always go by the road.
AH: Usually, people accompany somebody with a disability; so whether it's someone who is blind, or someone who has a physical disability, and they usually have some DMRC official accompanying them to the metro. Do they usually do that with you also, or do you go independently?
SS: So, they do that with me also. Like, while going inside the metro, I face a bit of difficulty because the train and the platform are not at the same level. So they would have to lift my chair and provide assistance while going. While getting down, I can do that on my own, so I don't require anyone's assistance. But while going they all provide assistance every day without me seeking for anyone to do it.
SS: They suggest travelling by the woman's coach, but I don’t like to, so I say that I will travel in the normal coach because getting down is not a problem.
AH:Why do you think they suggest travelling by the women’s coach?
SS: It’s actually very near to the TO, so if any assistance is required you can ask for help. It is easily available.
AH: Do you travel by any other form of transportation?
SS: No. Buses and all aren’t accessible at all. But my next dream is to travel on a bus independently.
AH: Have you been to another city in India where you maybe felt like the accessibility issue was better and better dealt with in terms of infrastructure?
SS: So recently I went to Bombay. I felt like people were more sensitised over there, but the accessibility issues were still there, as in Delhi only.
AH: Let's talk about accessibility within the university space. So, in terms of classrooms, in terms of footpaths, in terms of accessing buildings, maybe the libraries, bathrooms?
SS: Campus is accessible, but at the main South Campus I had this problem, where there were 6-8 stairs to my classroom. And there were a lot of problems with the university authorities to get my classroom to fit to an accessible place. So I would say that in university, there were different kinds of problems; like in Hindu College, last year, I had fought for accessibility to the canteen, and to various other places in the college which weren’t made accessible. So, there are a lot of problems with regards to sensitisation I would say. For example, I had a problem because the lift wasn’t working. I asked the teacher to shift the class, but the teacher blatantly refused and said that the class would not be shifted.
AH: Do you feel like authorities, whether it was the different universities you went to, or your own university as well as the students were accommodating to whatever issues or needs you had?
SS: Yes, they accommodated, but I never really felt that they were sensitised. Being accommodating is different from being sensitised.
AH: So, one of the biggest hurdles right now is, is the lack of sensitisation to people with disabilities.
AH: I think you being a student of political science, and so my next question to you would be: Where does that sensitisation come from? So for instance, does it come from classrooms?
SS: You know, in countries like the Scandinavian countries, I can say that people are sensitised from their homes. Here, in India, it is very different. But it starts from schools. Like, I was denied admission l by various schools on the grounds of disability, so you can imagine what is the state of affairs. According to 2011 census, the number of total people will disabilities who graduate is also so low.
SS: Why is the number so low? Because there is no will to give admission; they say we don’t have the staff or there are no classes on the ground floor. And also there is a kind of a saviour kind of mentality that, okay as if they have done some charity. So it happened with me a couple of times where my parents felt obliged to the school authorities. I feel it is my right, why do they need to feel obliged? It is because they have that kind of mindset where, “oh look, your child is a special child.”
SS: This concept is also problematic, calling someone “special.” They may be a normal child with some kind of impairment, but that does not mean that he cannot study in a ‘normal’ school. So there needs to be a change in mindset.
SS: With the present government also, the concept of ‘Divyaang’ and all, it does not help the cause. So, we need to remove the stigma from disability; that can happen through schools, through policy. Seeing more people with disabilities in public places, people automatically get more sensitised and they don’t feel like they are the ‘other’; they feel like they are a part of the mainstream.
AH: You mentioned ‘Divyaang’. Can you tell me a little bit more about your problem with the term, or with the way it is used?
SS: What is disability? How do you define it? Is only this a criteria that my impairment defines the whole of me? I do not think that is correct. Also, people can use the term ‘differently abled’, because I think ‘disability’ also stigmatises. And, ‘Divyaang’ does the same thing, but in a different way. ‘Divyaang’ tells you that we have some special power or something; we have no special powers. And it doesn’t address the main issues; it is just another way of gaining sympathy. I think the real issues should be addressed.
SS: I do not mind the term, ‘persons with disabilities’. It is a very neutral term because it defines a section of people. So if that can be used, I have no problem with it. So yes, that is a good term: ‘Persons with Disabilities’. Earlier, we weren’t even recognised as ‘persons’. This Right to Persons with Disabilities Bill, they’ve written ‘Persons’. So yes, that is a good term to use. But ‘Divyaang’ does not help in any way.
AH: So you seem to be quite familiar with the PwD Act, the new, the one that came in in 2016. Do you find that there's any change? And I'm also going forward because you are a student of political science. So, have there been any changes you can see with the Act? Any changes with, sort of the way that it, and again we can go into the nomenclature into defining disability. It now includes 21 impairments within the Act as well. So what is your opinion on it?
SS: One positive thing about this Act is that people are now talking about it. Things like accessibility and all are now being discussed in the public domain. That is good. Then this Act also recognises 21 types of disability, which is good. The Act also says that all public buildings should be accessible; it raises very important issues about Chief Commissioner and State Commissioner for persons with disabilities; now you have a court where you can go directly. So, in that way, this Act is very nice. But a lot more needs to be done.
Even the Constitutions scope can be expanded; so like Article 15 should include disability as a ground on which a person cannot be discriminated against. This would be a big stepping stone in the direction for furthering the cause of disability rights in India.
Are there any other conversations you feel that we should be having as a society?
SS: Yes. Another important issue is the parents of the child who has a disability, they are still not ready to accept the child. There are a lot of problems with that, especially due to the stigmatisation. And I think that this can only change if the society is more sensitive and they're not stigmatised. There are so many children who are not taken out of their home, and it's like a prison for them. They are not educated, whereas they have the full potential to do as well as anyone. It is just that they have different needs, and everyone has different needs.
SS: I remember what my teacher once said that when man couldn't fly, we built an aircraft. So, I don’t think that ramps and lifts should be that big of a problem. Society belongs to everyone, and we should try to build an inclusive atmosphere; that is true development.
Shorya Sood at the Faculty of Arts, Delhi University