How a 28-year-old heritage architect & access consultant from Mumbai has taken on the mammoth task of making art and heritage accessible to people with disabilities
For most people, the scope of making spaces accessible for people with disabilities begins and ends with straightening out infrastructural barriers. Construction of ramps, providing wheelchair access and removing or tweaking entry and exit barriers are considered sufficient. However, for a large number of disabilities, such a narrow definition of accessibility can hardly suffice. How will ramp construction ease access for people who have visual or hearing impairment, or those who have intellectual disabilities? Years of observing this chasm, especially in the world of art and tourism—and ever since his mother became partially visually impaired around 12 years ago—led Mumbai-based heritage architect and access consultant Siddhant Shah to think of ways in which these spaces could be made accessible to people with different disabilities.
“When my mother developed vision impairment, I realised we had stopped travelling altogether because we were just trying to figure out where to go and what to do. For her also, it was quite a challenge because she had sight for 40 years and then suddenly got deprived of it,” says 28-year-old Shah. “One day, my father casually remarked about the money we had saved by not travelling for three years straight, and it hit me then that even if one person in a family has a disability, it not only affects the plans of the whole family, but also has a bearing on the economy. We are the world’s capital for visual impairment. If over 60 million people are not travelling due to a disability, imagine the impact on the economy,” he says.
Shah started researching the subject seriously around 2013, seeking to devise ways through which his mother and other people with disabilities could enjoy the experience of travelling. In 2014, he got a scholarship for a one-year master’s course in heritage management in Greece, where he chose to delve into the accessibility aspects in greater detail and bring the amassed experience home. “Being a tourism-driven country, Greece has done remarkably well in accessibility aspects. I was actually quite shocked to see that feature omnipresent in their art galleries, museums… the Acropolis Museum, in particular, and their parks, which are also accessible to persons with disabilities. Those were the things that started triggering in me a need to do something about it,” recalls Shah.
Upon the completion of his course, he came back home in 2015 and continued his research around accessibility in the world of art. “When I started visiting museums, they told me they have wheelchair-accessible washrooms, wheelchair parking, etc. I figured that our society’s understanding of disability is only around wheelchairs. I would also keep going back to my mother’s case wherein if we were to travel, she would simply be sitting as there was nothing else for her to do. Even if the hurdle of accessibility was surpassed, there was nothing for her in the context of experience or knowledge,” says Shah.
Then in June 2015, Shah got roped in at the National Museum, New Delhi, where he worked as a resource consultant at Anubhav, India’s first tactile gallery that has 22 tactile replicas of museum objects on display. The replicas, representing 5,000 years of Indian art, have been carefully chosen from the vast collection of National Museum by its curators. In October the same year, Shah started working on making Jaipur’s City Palace accessible. During this time, he also formally set up Access For All, a company that works in collaboration with museums, historical sites, monuments, foundations, art galleries, art fairs, etc, to make these spaces accessible to the disabled.
At City Palace, Shah and his team worked on three key aspects of accessibility: physical access, construction of disabled-friendly toilets and enhancing the ‘touch-and-feel’ aspect of the place. For this, they designed India’s first comprehensive Braille book with large fonts and tactile images to help people with visual impairments read about the history and richness of India’s heritage. This was something that hadn’t been heard of in the country so far. “Ramps were created… then we looked at designing the inside infrastructure like creating accessible toilets with all the facilities, and finally, the one revolutionary thing that we brought in was making cultural heritage sites accessible for persons with visual impairment. That’s where an entire range of tactile artworks came into place, so visually impaired people could touch and feel the paintings and the maps of the old city of Jaipur, and understand what the grid-based system means, where the palace is located, how it is placed in Jaipur, and what are the geographies around it,” says Shah.
One thing led to another and soon Access For All started being approached for many heritage and art properties such as Mehrangarh Fort in Rajasthan, Kolkata Centre for Creativity, Delhi Art Gallery (DAG), India Art Fair, Serendipity Arts Festival, Kochi Biennale, etc.
Today, the company also organises sensitisation programmes in schools and conducts workshops in architecture colleges, so designers are attuned to the idea of accessibility right from the start. They have had their fair share of global exposure as well. In the past three years, they have conducted training sessions in China, worked on making State Bank Museum in Karachi and Pustaka Bukara, a children’s literature fest in Malaysia, accessible. They have even displayed tactile artworks in Madrid, Spain. Most recently, in 2019, Shah was chosen to represent India at Tate Intensive at Tate Modern, London, that brought participants from 22 countries together to generate new possibilities for their respective practices and institutional policies.
Even though Access For All has now become well known, especially in the ‘conscious art’ circles, the company continues to battle challenges. “Awareness is still a challenge for us even after five years of working in the space. But now, at least, people realise and recognise what we do. Initially, we had to struggle a lot to make ourselves heard because sensitisation around it lacks in a big way,” says Shah. “Then budgeting is a big problem because everybody thinks it’s expensive, but that is the case because we retrofit accessibility. We never think of including it in the budget right from the start. Also, a lot of people continue to associate disability with charity. There have been instances where managements of art galleries in Mumbai told us that they would provide a one-time donation, but do not want people with disabilities to visit their gallery. We told them that we don’t want any money and just want to make their beautiful art space accessible. However, the response we got was that they do not wish to associate themselves with disability,” Shah recalls.
However arduous the journey, Access For All is being courted actively by art fairs and events in the country today. The people in the team—two visually impaired members (including Shah’s mother) and two members hard of hearing—also travel extensively across the globe to create more awareness. “We have four people in the team, two with hearing impairment and two with visual impairment. We have a Braille press… a 3D printer. My mother and I make tactile renditions and a major part of the designing is done by the two of us only,” says Shah. Clearly, they have come far from being completely bootstrapped and working free of charge to tying up with corporates like Standard Chartered, Emami Art, Goldman Sachs and being funded through CSR initiatives today.
What keeps the team going is the abundance of positive feedback not just from the stakeholders involved, but also from the people whose experiences it seeks to enhance. For every one person who does not understand the quantum of labour and effort that goes into creating tactile and Braille renditions, there is one person with disabilities that Shah has stumbled upon who has benefitted greatly. “We received letters from a group of students in Bhopal who were excited about the things we had done in City Palace. That was the first time that a blind school could take students out for a study tour. A student told us in the feedback form that earlier they were just taken to places, fed well, given good treatment and had photographs clicked. But this was the first time they were able to experience and understand the place they were taken to,” recalls Shah.
Then another time, Shah’s chest swelled with pride after he realised that he had been instrumental in making someone’s last trip memorable and worthy. “This one time, I was giving a TED talk and someone came up to me and said he took his grandmother on her last trip to Jaipur, which she enjoyed thoroughly because of the accessibility initiatives taken by us. He added that she could not visit Hawa Mahal because it was inaccessible. We have got calls from local guides as well, who have said that we have helped open a new segment of tourism for them,” he says.
The wave of awareness around accessibility is slowly leading event and festival organisers in the country to make it an intrinsic part of their properties. Accessibility now is no more a feature that they seek to add to the designing or framework at later stages. “It’s a way of life that we wanted to adopt. Art is meant for everyone and our idea was to bring everyone under the festival’s domain with no caveat. There’s actually an increasing need for that demographic to be added to our everyday life as well,” says Smriti Rajgarhia, director, Serendipity Arts Festival, an annual multi-disciplinary arts festival that takes place in Goa every December.
Shah has actively worked with the Serendipity Arts Festival board to provide them Access for All offerings. From straightening infrastructural barriers to making Braille tactile artwork available to a large number of people, Rajgarhia and the team at Serendipity are perhaps the first ones in the country to organise and helm a completely inclusive event of that magnitude. “We have miles to go and want to seamlessly integrate accessibility in our festival year after year. We conduct sensitisation workshops as well, and the next step is to look at how technology can help in making the experience better for persons with disabilities,” says Rajgarhia.
Jagdip Jagpal, director of India Art Fair, an annual event showcasing modern and contemporary art from south Asia, also made accessibility a part of the show when she came on board in 2018. “Before I took over as director in 2018, I had visited the fair for three consecutive years and observed parts of it being inaccessible. It’s a fundamental thing for me because if you are organising an event of that scale and magnitude, it should be accessible to everyone. We want diversity in the audience, and want everyone to feel comfortable and welcome to experience the event,” she says.
With a built-in budget to promote inclusion, India Art Fair has sign language interpreters, tactile artworks, ramps, dedicated toilets for persons with disabilities and much more. “There are nursing and distress rooms at the fair. There are ramps and widely accessible aisles, flat pavements, appropriate lighting, and enough space for mobility. Our staff is trained and knows how to deal with persons with disabilities. We also educate and enlighten customers by having blindfolded walks,” says Jagpal.
Jaipur Literature Festival (JLF), the world’s largest free literary festival, also has wheelchair access and trained staff to attend to the needs of people with disabilities. They work with a host of organisations to continue improving the dynamics of the festival and make inclusion a norm. “We talk about how the JLF is a democratic platform with free access. So the minute we say that, the onus of making the event accessible falls on us too. We aim to bring about social change and for that, you have to inculcate good practices that include accessibility,” says Sanjoy Roy, managing director, Teamwork Arts, which organises the festival.