Can’t we make room for people with disabilities?
December 7, 2017

Why is it that we put a ceiling on accessibility to education and workplaces when it comes to people with disability? It’s high time we toggle our mindset and think of ensuring that the entertainment and tourism sectors suit the needs of this section of society, says Aditi Panda. We have miles to go but together we can achieve our goal much faster just by small attitudinal changes

Sudipta Mishra works as a special educator in a special school. She herself suffers from cerebral palsy. “As a woman with a disability, I have had to face a lot of discrimination,” she says. For instance, she has had to cope with the harsh comments of a few insensitive people when she tried to communicate with them to get information. “Speech impairment is not a crime or a thing to laugh at,” Sudipta says. “We also have the right to travel, interact with people and live a life of dignity.”

UniversalAccesbility_Aditi

Sudipta’s is not an isolated travel experience for people with disability. The segment faces both practical and attitudinal difficulties when they move out of their comfort zones. Why is it that we put a ceiling on accessibility to education and workplaces when it comes to people with disability? It’s high time we toggle our mindset and think of ensuring that the entertainment and tourism sectors suit the needs of this section of society.

Tourism is a very significant way of widening the circles of a group prone to be segregated from mainstream society. People with disability have the same right as others to travel with dignity and liberty and have access to tourism infrastructure, both products and services, including employment opportunities.

Different aspects such as financial constraints, mobility issues, family support and societal barriers multiply for people with disability when they decide to take a package tour. Moreover, their movements are restricted when it comes to difficult-to-access temples, historic sites and heritage monuments, particularly those on elevated terrain. Even people with sufficient resources at their disposal hesitate to travel because of practical considerations if they are disabled.

Sudipta with her friends in college
Sudipta (extreme left) with her friends in college.

Since people with disability, senior citizens and families with young children are not considered potential customers by the Government and other service providers, these segments constitute untapped potential. The number of people with disabilities is rapidly growing. The economic opportunities that emanate from the requirements of this section have also been identified. Meeting the tourism needs of people with disability, which can be termed Accessible Tourism, can prove to be profitable, besides being an effort to conform to legal requirements.

It is a myth that accessibility is expensive to provide. Even simple things can make a huge difference. The main entrance of buildings can be widened to accommodate wheelchairs. Ramps with a minimum gradient of 1:12 and preferably tactile surfaces, equipped with handrails on both sides, can be built next to steps. Water taps can be placed at heights of 900-1000 mm with appropriate leg and knee space. Long lever handles make it easier for persons with disability to operate. Buses can be fitted with hydraulic ramps operated by driver for the benefit of the disabled. Electric switches can be placed 450-1000 mm from the floor level with colours contrasting with the hues of surrounding wall for easy access. Help desks can be set up at bus terminals and railway stations to support people with special needs, and make travelling an experience to cherish.

Chumki Dutta, an entrepreneur and social activist working for the financial independence of people with disability and the underprivileged, has positive feedback to provide.

“I have travelled all over India on a wheelchair and even if all places are not accessible, people make it an enjoyable experience and help us to move forward. So I have always thought that the attitude of the people towards the differently-abled matters a lot. I remember the day I decided to go to Rajasthan to attend a wedding at a palace situated on top of a hill. Initially I was scared and worried that my wheelchair would not permit me to go on this adventure. But I was surprised by the positive attitude of the people there, who helped me to reach the palace. I thoroughly enjoyed every moment of my stay in Rajasthan,” Dutta says.

The media highlighted the work done by the Delhi Tourism Department to make Dilli Haat the first disabled-friendly tourist spot in India. The reports generated discussion on accessibility issues in the tourism sector and created public awareness about the subject. The Tourism Department has committed to making all upcoming projects barrier free.

Dr Minati Behera, commissioner for Persons with Disabilities, Odisha, says, “The Persons with Disabilities (Equal Opportunity, Protection of Rights and Full Participation) Act 1985 mandates a barrier-free access in all public places, transportation systems etc.

The Rights of Persons with Disabilities Act 2016 also mandates facilities such as access to transport, information and communication technology as well as consumer goods. It also makes observance of accessibility norms compulsory, and sets a time limit for making existing infrastructure and premises accessible.”

The office of the Odisha State Commission for Persons with Disabilities has been making systematic continuous efforts to create awareness among the authorities, administrators, engi-neers and architects on the needs of the disabled. Relentless efforts resulted in many public buildings being made accessible to the disabled. Almost all government schools now have ramps and at least one toilet to suit the needs of the disabled. Ultimately, there is a need to acknowledge that providing access to people with disabilities is everyone’s responsibility, not just that of the Government.

“More public awareness should be created on the problems associated with different kinds of disability,” says Sudipta. “If we create more awareness on disability and change our mindset towards people with disability then the world will be a better place to live in,” adds Chumki.

(The writer, based in Bhubaneswar, Odisha, works freelance for the state government and several funding agencies of repute. Her area of expertise is documentation, training and reporting, and field of interest disability, gender, child rights, child protection and accessibility.)

October – December 2017