Making India accessible

While the public sector must step up efforts to become disabled-friendly, there is a need to partner the private sector for solutions too

The minister of social justice & empowerment, Thawar Singh Gehlot, and the chief minister of Maharashtra, Devendra Phadnavis, launched the ‘Accessible India’ Campaign for Persons with Disabilities on September 24, 2015. The campaign promises to target three verticals—built-up environment, transportation ecosystem and the information and communication ecosystem. The launch of this campaign itself is path-breaking, as political parties and governments in the country have neglected the disabled. India still has an archaic (from 1995) and toothless disability law that hardly finds a mention in party manifestos.

Census data suggests that 2.21% of India has some disability (or at least 21 million Indians). This is an under-reported number—first, because the current law accepts only seven disabilities, and second, because many families don’t declare disabled family members as there still is huge social stigma attached to disability. The World Health Organisation (WHO), in a 2011 study, estimated that 15.3% of the world’s population deals with disability of one kind or the other; India’s disabled population clearly lies somewhere between these two numbers.

There are two reasons why the disabled go unnoticed and unheard. First, the disabled are often neglected—even by their families (even when they aren’t, they struggle to make ends meet in this inaccessible country). Thus, they hardly have the financial muscle to be noticed as a community. The form of parliamentary democracy India follows is loaded against them as a community. The disabled, unlike religious caste or regional minorities are not ghettoised in particular regions. This is because they are the only minority in this set that isn’t usually hereditary (I’m glad it isn’t!), having a horizontal identity based on lack of physical abilities in comparison to the vertical identities in the conventional minorities. It never becomes a significant enough vote bank in a constituency to influence electoral candidates.

This is what makes it wonderful to see the government launch the ‘Accessible India’ campaign, dedicated to this forgotten community of the country. While it might be too much to expect to see India become completely disabled- friendly in five years, a lot can be done to create an enabling environment.

We need a stronger law with a greater scope and strict penalties for non-implementation, unlike what the existing Persons with Disabilities Act 1995 provides for. In fact, India signed the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UNCRPD) in 2007, committing to more rights for the disabled. There have been two national elections since and there have been three Lok Sabhas, but the lower house has failed to pass a new law.

Under the ‘Accessible India’ campaign, the government is targeting 50–100 government buildings in each state to make them accessible in the next one year with more to follow in the coming years. It also aims to make airports and railway stations accessible and, in fact, make 25% of all government-owned transport carriers in the country fully accessible by mid-2017.

While this would immensely help improve the way the disabled live, that it is important to engage the private sector proactively. The new company law that mandates companies to spend 2% of their profits on CSR provides a good opportunity to work towards the disabled. While larger corporations are being invited to adopt government buildings and make them accessible as a part of their CSR, the government could also promote organisations to make their existing premises and infrastructure accessible, with the spend on this included as part of CSR.

For all future commercial infrastructure, there might be an easy step forward to mandate accessibility. Commercial enterprises already require a completion certificate and occupation certificate from the GOI after having been constructed. These certificates are granted only after various norms are complied with, fire norms being among them. We must add a norm and create a checklist to check if universal access conditions have been satisfied.

The private sector needs to be encouraged both by the GOI and the disabled community to make their products and services disability-friendly. Just to give a few examples—private news channels have bulletins in sign language for the hearing impaired, radio cab companies could introduce wheelchair-accessible vehicles with ramps and restaurants should upload their menus on tablets with software that read them out to visually-challenged customers.

Accessible India is a great start, indicating the intent to do great things for the disabled community and kudos to the government for that! However, it’s eventual success will depend on the level of engagement of all stakeholders in moving this campaign forward.

The author was born with arthrogryposis and is thus restricted to a wheelchair. He is the co-founder and CEO of Nipman Foundation, a partner organisation to the Accessible India campaign. He can be reached on Twitter at @nipunmalhotra

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First published on: 06-10-2015 at 00:32 IST