Mumbai resident Jasmina Khanna, 49, loves enjoying her evenings outside under the fading sun. The passing day brings with it a sense of calm and restfulness that she can seldom feel in the day. But unlike most others, Jasmina cannot go to a park or her favourite sunset spots in the city to enjoy her evenings. On most days, she has to make do with the balconies or windows of her office or home.
Jasmina lives with cerebral palsy, a neurological disorder that hampers movement, posture, and muscle tone. She uses a wheelchair and though she herself is full of zest and vigour, the engineer employed at an IT firm in Mumbai feels that roads and establishments in the city remain inaccessible for persons with disabilities.
In 2018, she and her long-time friend and physiotherapist Sanket Khadilkar audited Ville Parle East in Mumbai and found that the roads were not only inaccessible to persons with disabilities but also senior citizens and pregnant women. The footpaths were broken and irregular, there were no ramps, no tactile indicators, or alternate signage.
This is not just the case with Ville Parle.
Despite the tall claims and guidelines made by the Indian government’s much-hyped Sugamya Bharat Abhiyan (Accessible India Campaign) that was launched in 2015, most of the country including metropolitan and high-income cities like Mumbai remain highly inaccessible for the differently-abled.
That was when it struck Jasmina that despite being aware of the need for accessibility, no one was shouldering the responsibility to initiate change. “So we did it ourselves,” Jasmina tells News18.
Access to Hope
Jasmina, along with Sanket, has started a non-profit organisation called ‘Acces to Hope’ with the aim of bringing infrastructural accessibility to the forefront of infrastructure designing. The larger goal is to make all roads and footpaths as well as institutions in Mumbai accessible to the differently-abled.
While environmental accessibility is their larger goal, for now, Jasmina and Sanket are sticking to two roads – Hanuman Road and Nehru Road – in Mumbai as part of their pilot project and they plan to make it fully accessible for all.
“Our audit report was based on government guidelines for accessibility on the basis of which we approached the Assistant Commissioner of K East Ward to seek his support for the initiative,” Sanket tells News18. The duo has embarked on a public-private partnership with BMC and a design architectural firm to design the prototype for the new roads.
“The idea is to provide a template for footpaths that can be laid out across Mumbai,” Sanket adds. According to the government’s accessibility guidelines, footpaths need to contain tactile for the visually challenged. They also need to be at 1.8 metres in width in residential areas, allowing enough space for two wheelchairs to pass each other. For commercial areas, the prescribed clear width is at least 2.5 metres. They also need to meet certain height criteria so as to allow wheelchairs to easily be mounted. Most footpaths do no meet these criteria.
Speaking to News18, Sanket recalled an experiment that an elderly neighbour had conducted on a Mumbai street where he tried to measure the length of an unbroken footpath but could not get even 20 paces before encountering obstructions. “Firstly, there are hawkers who encroach on footpaths and set up shop. Residents leave their garbage here. Moreover, there is no uniformity in the footpaths across the city,” Sanket says.
Parul Kumtha, chief architect from Nature Nurture Architects and Planners that has been looking after the design and engineering aspect of the project tells News18 that it is essential to create a world that is equally accessible and available for everyone.
“When we talk about accessibility, we mean not just providing end-to-end accessibility but also looking at the function of things,” Parul says.
Parul, who specialises in designing infrastructure for persons with disability has been working on making Mumbai a more accessible city for nearly three decades. She feels that when it comes to inclusive infrastructure, one needs to focus not just on space but on function.
Having taken it up as her speciality the architect has since tried to make public spaces like colleges, government buildings and toilets more accessible through inclusive architecture that marks a firm departure from what critics call ableist designs.
Some spaces so addressed include in St Xavier’s College, Mumbai, Nandanam Arts College, Chennai, Shipping Corporation of India HQ, Mumbai, among others.
“When designing a library, for instance, one has to ask, would it be equally accessible to persons with locomotive disabilities? Would a person with dyslexia be able to manoeuvre the catalogue system? Is each of these things serving the same purpose to everyone who can enter the library? Those are the questions one needs to answer,” Parul says.
The disability rights activist adds that making spaces more accessible also meant looking at “invisible and intellectual” disabilities such as dyslexia, autism.
The visible and invisible
While disability rights activists agree that recent years have been progressive in terms of increasing accessibility as long as policies were concerned, implementation has been lax. Sanket and Jasmina both agree that apart from some ramps here and there, not much has been done with regard to making spaces inclusive.
Parul, who is mother to an autistic son and founding member of the parent support group ‘Forum for Autism’ and is constantly in touch with a network of persons with disabilities due to her area of work as well as interest, feels that the coronavirus pandemic has also impacted the disability movement.
“The problem when it comes to taking accountability for increasing inclusiveness for persons with disability people tend to ask, ‘where are the people with disability?’ The answer is, how will you see them if you don’t make spaces accessible for them?”
And in terms of visibility, the coronavirus pandemic has made matters worse. But now is the time when the public and private sector needs to come together along with civil workers to provide end to end accessibility to the most vulnerable sections. Parul also stresses that having persons with disability in places of decision making will definitely be one of the first steps to making more inclusive cities possible.
It is as Jasmina and Sanket stressed, disability is not in the body. It is in the lack of resources available to those with different needs and abilities. With the turn of a new year, both Jasmina and Sanket hope for a brighter and more inclusive future for the disability rights movement.