There is more to accessibility than ramps

Since the late 1996, the creation of a built environment that is accessible to all citizens has been a focus of the Equal Opportunities Act. As a feminist I think access is crucial for allowing people with disabilities to secure their proper citizenship rights. The disability advocacy has underscored the standards of accessible architecture and universal design, but the state has not been pro-active regarding the issues of access.

To my mind, laws on accessible architecture are poorly enforced. I, and my fellow disabled are very skeptical that real changes will be forthcoming, unless both abled and disabled can fight the issues. The serious problem for me is that only disabled people seem to be placing high value on accessibility.

Barrier-ridden public spaces result in social isolation for many wheelchair users, for example, which find it difficult or impossible to venture beyond their houses or neighborhoods. For an activist and academician in a prestigious college, it took almost 25 years in getting a ramp and toilet. I still cannot go to the staff room, administration office as well as principal’s office (please understand the issue of power). The college has started work on elevator very recently.

You can imagine the horror when you think of issues such as education and health. Faced with both apathy on the part of the state to conform to accessibility laws and with societal ignorance (many of my acquaintances in outside disability communities seem to only know the word ramp), many of us prefer to stay at home and lose the opportunities to connect with the world of the “able-bodied.

I often, (who has the resources) experience my day to day life as problematic as going to the market has no understanding of access. Day before yesterday, I came back without buying fruits as the only ramp was there has been broken to park the car. Or if you want to be a masochist, you can go to Fab India, the choice is either to stay in the car and the guard brings in what ever is possible (Also read Kamayani’s mail on Westside’s anti-disability, anti-wheelchair policy).

Notwithstanding the difficulties associated with built environment, my suggestion was to bring in a cautionary note. It is true that the built environment is not disable friendly but wheel chair users do know escalators are not wheelchair friendly. We should protest but we need to know the nature of the assistive devices. Notwithstanding the personal responsibility, I feel that we don’t value life of disabled people. As feminists, we need to re think and take access as one of the critical issue that we need to fight.

Theoretically, we do respect the rights to all humans equally despite any physical / economical / social / mental / psychological differences. But it cannot be a lip service. I feel making inclusive spaces for disabled and aged citizens should be binding. India’s ratification of the United Convention on Rights of Persons with Disabilities (“CRPD”) marks a significant step in the development of Indian disability law. According to Article 2 of the CRPD, “reasonable accommodation” means “necessary and appropriate modification and adjustments not imposing a disproportionate or undue burden, where needed in a particular case, to ensure to persons with disabilities the enjoyment or exercise on an equal basis with others of all human rights and fundamental freedoms”. Unlike earlier interpretations of the term which were limited to buildings, roads and transport. The UN Convention broadens the very concept of accessibility. It includes facilities and services provided and open to the public, the urban and rural areas, indoor and outdoor facilities. Public facilities like Canteens, administrative services and sports and recreational facilities are as important as classrooms and laboratories.

The concept of accessibility also includes information and communication technology, to include services and communications. Article 9 on accessibility addresses an overarching concern for the effective implementation of obligations for persons with disabilities – that of accessibility. In this regard it takes a broad approach to the issue, addressing not only physical accessibility but also accessibility of information. Article 9 also highlights the need for accessibility issues to be considered early on, for example right at the time of procurement or deployment of information and communications technologies. As per the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD), the existence of barriers constitutes a central component of educating the students with disability. Under the Convention, disability is an evolving concept that “results from the interaction between persons with impairments and attitudinal and environmental barriers that hinder their full and effective participation in society on an equal basis with others.” That’s the least a democratic country must do.

As an activist, I do use the idea of the temporarily able bodied (TAB), which is an indicator of the precariousness of human existence, and is extremely helpful in destabilizing the binaries of health/ill health, non-disabled/disabled. However, the margins which divide us into categories are realistically wobbly, such that constant replication is needed to keep them in check. In a similar way as we perform our gendered/disabled/sexed/impaired identities, we also need to perform what is expected of a healthy body, so that it is not tainted with bodily breakdown. The negation of binary thought opens up the realm of continual negotiation, within which it might be possible to work towards a truly inclusive society.

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