Earlier this year, in the month of March, I took a train ride back to my city Kolkata from Cuttack. I had to be carried into the train and off it because our trains do not have doors wide enough to let wheelchairs in. While getting off the train, I was groped and manhandled by the porters who carried me out of the compartment.
Faced with a similar situation, in 2017, Virali Modi, a Mumbai based activist filed a petition seeking reforms in the Indian Railways’ infrastructure because for a wheelchair-user, the railways are not accessible at all. Recently, the Bombay High Court in an Order, declared that courtrooms in India are to be made disabled-friendly. Any wheelchair-user who appears in court as a witness or otherwise is to not face accessibility issues in a space, which is to be the place where justice is meted out to one and all. In this order, Justice G.S. Patel observed that “No litigant should be subjected to the indignity of having to struggle up needless steps or have to be physically carried into court. Every court must, at a minimum, be wheelchair accessible”.
The above examples reveal the extent to which spaces in India are accessible for persons who may be dependent on wheelchairs. Transport, travel, workspaces and even courts in the country, have still not been made wheelchair-friendly. The salient features of the Rights of Persons with Disabilities Act, 2016 include emphasis on making public buildings (both government and private) accessible within a prescribed time-frame.
This is in furtherance of the Accessible India campaign launched by Prime Minister Modi. This campaign is an attempt at enhancing accessibility to the built-environment as well as transport systems. However, the presence of such legal provisions and policies do little to truly emancipate people with disabilities. So far, such aspirations of accessibility remain toothless. Till they remain on paper alone, ineffective in reality, there will be no change in situation for people with disabilities. The impact of such a lack of access on the lives of people with disabilities is profound and in effect, curtails rights that should be equally available to people from the disabled community.
There are two major arguments that are made as justification to this lack of accessible spaces in our country. The first is that the cost is too high and would constitute a huge burden on the exchequer. However, research has shown that incorporating minor changes in the infrastructural plan of a building is not an expensive endeavour, particularly if it occurs in the initial stages of planning.
The second argument that is advanced in this respect is the “lack of market” argument. This is an extremely problematic notion for it reeks of the idea that people do not envision the disabled as a viable customer base. However, it is important to understand that this lack of market exists due to the prior unavailability of these services. The initial lack of access has resulted in a form of marginalization, which has resulted in the absence of opportunities for persons with disabilities to become a customer-base for these facilities.
I had to be carried into the train and off it because our trains do not have doors wide enough to let wheelchairs in.
This idea of a ‘lack of market’ is a misconception. It is based on flawed conclusions arrived at by a society, which believes that persons with disabilities don’t need to go out, they don’t need to work or get jobs, they do not need to get married and raise a family etc. This discussion is completely ignorant of the fact that the reason why such persons do not go out in the first place is because their environment does not permit them to do so and not because they the lack the desire or need to do so. Therefore, what emerges in conclusion to this is also the fact that provision of these accessible facilities would be the first step towards eliminating these obstacles to the enjoyment of their rights by persons with special needs.
It is also important to understand that this lack of access has a direct bearing on the ability of people with disabilities to be “productive” members of the workforce. The right to access is directly linked to the right to work, which cannot be efficiently exercised in the absence of a suitable work environment.
In India, the lack of a favourable infrastructure proves to be a massive hurdle to incorporating these people within the framework of the “labour force” and “human capital”. Therefore, it becomes extremely difficult for people with disabilities to achieve the transfer from the ‘rolls of charity to the rolls of taxpayers’. More than that, there is a need for an understanding and discussion that are devoid of these baseless arguments and justifications.
No amount of economic trouble or market-based capitalistic ideas should help determine one’s right to access, which should be available in an unconditionally equal manner to all persons, irrespective of their physical state of being.
It is also important to understand that such infrastructural issues also contribute to the disabled community lacking a “voice”, which is an important component for any community to spark a conversation about their issues. Only if this infrastructural problem is solved, can the problem of the disabled lacking a voice also be countered. Only when there is social interaction and collectivization, is any form of revolution and generation of discourse possible.
the reason why PWDs may not go out is because their environment does not permit them to do so and not because they the lack the desire to do so.
Such a discourse, in which the primary stakeholder (people with disabilities) having a more prominent voice would ensure that the understanding of their situation is not merely academic. It is important to have a practical and real understanding of the kind of lives we lead. This understanding can only be fostered if there is an attempt at normalizing our lives by bringing us out on to the streets just like every other member of society. It is only then that not just the larger problem of their impoverishment but also the problems of social inequity and acceptance would come to a conclusive end.
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