Why doing the accessibility audit requires interest on part of state governments

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Published: January 25, 2018 5:54:14 AM

As the audits of IGI airport and SC show, often, layouts are designed to address the most obvious accessibility concerns, not the less apparent ones.

accessibility audit, persons with disabilities, empowerment of persons with disabilities, Accessible India CampaignThe department of empowerment of persons with disabilities (divyangjan) has an initiative that deserves greater publicity. (Image: Reuters)

The department of empowerment of persons with disabilities (divyangjan) has an initiative that deserves greater publicity. This is known as the “Accessible India Campaign” (Sugamya Bharat Abhiyan), launched in December 2015. I am not getting into broader, and legitimate issues, of how we define and measure disability. Census of 2011 gives a disability number of 26.8 million, 2.21% of the population. By any global yardstick, provided we capture it right, disabled population cannot be significantly lower than 15%. But for present purposes, let us ignore that. There is a 1995 piece of legislation, the Persons with Disabilities (Equal Opportunities, Protection of Rights and Full Participation) Act. Among other things, Persons with Disabilities (PwDs) require access and that is set out in Sections 44, 45 and 46, respectively, in transport, on the road and built environment. For instance, Section 46 states, “The appropriate Governments and the local authorities shall, within the limits of their economic capacity and development, provide for—(a) ramps in public buildings; (b) adaptation of toilets for wheel chair users; (c) braille symbols and auditory signals in elevators or lifts; (d) ramps in hospitals, primary health centres and other medical care and rehabilitation institutions.” There is also the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UNCRPD). India signed this in 2007, though not the Optional Protocol. Article 9 of UNCRPD is about accessibility and 9(1) mentions “(a) Buildings, roads, transportation and other indoor and outdoor facilities, including schools, housing, medical facilities and workplaces; (b) Information, communications and other services, including electronic services and emergency services.” Understandably, any such Accessible India Campaign will have many dimensions, such as spreading of awareness, ensuring barrier-free access when new buildings are designed or there are additions to existing buildings, ensuring access to public transportation and some measure of access for ICT.

However, there is also the bit about gauging extent to which existing government buildings are accessible, interpreted mostly as physical access. (I am not denying the importance of doing this for non-government buildings too.) That requires an access audit. Take a look at ISO 21542:2011. That’s about accessibility and usability of the built environment. Though I said Accessible India Campaign deserves greater dissemination, I think the argument is stronger for the access audit. Even those who are aware of the Accessible India Campaign, seem to be unaware that such an access audit has been done for 57 cities through external access auditors. (The details are there on the department’s website.) For each such city, a number of government buildings have been identified. Having done the audit, the intention is to make them completely accessible.

I presume doing the accessibility audit requires interest on part of state governments. Why has Jammu and Kashmir undertaken access audits for 18 cities, but Bengal none? It is not as if share of PwDs is low in Bengal. I mentioned the all-India figure of 2.21%. As shares, highest percentage of PwDs is in Uttar Pradesh (15.5%), Maharashtra (11.05%), Bihar (8.69%), Andhra Pradesh (8.45%) and West Bengal (7.52%). In Delhi, 23 buildings were audited—many are hospitals. One of these is the Supreme Court and this particular audit was done in 2016. There is a wealth of information—on approach, main gate, parking, entrance to the building, reception, lifts, ramps, stairs, cafeteria, toilets, drinking water facility and disaster preparedness. If Supreme Court is an indication, the accessibility agenda is usually interpreted as alighting, accessible entrances, ramps and movements along corridors and doorways. One doesn’t necessarily think of accessible toilets, cafes, signage and emergency evacuation.

Therefore, Supreme Court does well in that first list, but not in the second. Every such audit report has specific suggestions for improvements and these aren’t too expensive. Hence, it will be interesting to see if Supreme Court takes cognisance and when it becomes fully compliant. Though not listed in the category of government buildings in Delhi, but listed separately, there is a 2016 access audit report for Indira Gandhi International Airport (IGIA), with separate segments for Terminals 1-C, 1-D and 3. Unless you yourself are disabled, you are likely to think that this modern airport is PwD-friendly. The report will make you think again. IGIA is indeed relatively friendlier. However, as with Supreme Court, in designing, one thinks of the most obvious aspects, not the less obvious ones. As the third access audit report, I will mention that of New Delhi railway station, undertaken in 2015.

The Railways has a 2009 manual of standards and specifications for railway stations. This is easier to implement for new green-field stations, or for those existing stations where modernisation has an element of green-field retrofitting. New Delhi doesn’t fulfil these criteria and, I expected, unlike Supreme Court or the airport, this report to be unkind. That’s indeed the case. The Sugamya Bharat Abhiyan has an objective that at least 50% of all major buildings in a city should become fully accessible. (This number is 50 for some cities and 25 for others.) Once a building becomes fully accessible, no fresh access audits need be done for that specific building. That being said, it is difficult to see what can be done with suggestions for the railway station, unlike those for Supreme Court or the airport. Some can indeed be implemented and should be. But others are close to impossible. New Delhi railway station will never be able to conform to the Railways’ own manual too.

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