'Sensitivity training can change attitude towards disability'

When wheelchair-bound Anjlee Agarwal was lifted from her seat in the Jet Connect aircraft 9W 2211 that landed in Raipur on February 20, she felt as if the flight was some kind of time machine that had pushed her several years backward.

As executive director and Access Consultant for Samarthyam, National Centre for Accessible Environment (Delhi), Anjlee had been working for nearly 14 years in making transportation accessible for persons with disability. Her work had ensured the newly-built metros in Delhi and Bangalore were disabled-friendly.

So when she was denied of aisle chairs to deplane at Raipur and, a week later, carried out of the Air India flight on a luggage trolley, the shock and disbelief was greater. Yet, Anjlee says the incidents that caused a flutter amongst the community of persons with disability and in the wider nation are indeed aberrations that emphasise the need for more sensitisation and awareness creation. She points to the swift action of the Chief Commissioner of Persons with Disability (CCPD) and Director General of Civil Aviation (DGCA) following the incidents as a sign that government agencies are also becoming more receptive to the issues of persons with disability. In an interview with L Subramani of Deccan Herald, Anjlee also spoke on her work as an access consultant reviewing the accessibility features of public buildings.
Excerpts:

Apropos to the two incidents of mistreatment by the airlines, though it has a lot to do with lack of training and awareness amongst the airline staff, do you think it reflects a general trend in terms of how the society views a person with disability?
 
To a great extent, the mistreatment of disabled passengers is asymptomatic of the general attitude towards disability. In most situations, people are helpful and accommodating how much ever they may lack understanding about how best to do it. In these cases, sensitivity training is the key.

In the airline industry however, problems range from being denied boarding simply because a person has a disability, lack of required assistance being provided to persons with some types of disabilities, lack of good quality aisle chairs and wheelchairs, not respecting individual autonomy and freedom of choice and forcing persons with visual impairment to sit on wheelchairs etc. This discriminatory and offensive behaviour exacerbates fears and tension that characterise air travel. Here, sensitivity training is more important, and requires strong enforcement of human relation skills as well.

Does being a woman and being a person with disability make fighting for rights doubly challenging?

Definitely. Disability adds to the challenges of women in India, particularly due to a lack of understanding of the multiple challenges that women with disabilities face. For example, the use of a public toilet—a challenge for all women in India, due to the lack of space, privacy and safe access. For a woman with disability, lack of access, feminine needs and cultural stereotypes, dependence on others to utilise these facilities, and lack of accommodation create greater obstacles.

If the airline incidents are anything to go by, the challenges almost always seem unending. Where do you find the motivation to fight the mistreatment?

Every positive step, however small it may be, gives the impetus (for me) to work harder to ensure access for all. There are challenges alright, but every small effort creates a positive impact. We see this reflected in the positive steps taken by government agencies, enthusiasm of architects, engineers and designers (in spite of lack of training) and the acceptance of more and more persons with disability in the mainstream- in jobs, education, lifestyle etc. Every positive step gives a boost to the larger cause of promoting access.

You look at accessibility consultation. What does it entail?

Access audits of existing and proposed facilities provides suggestions for further improvements in them. A capacity building exercise, not a fault finding one, a team of trained access auditors with diverse disabilities and professionals reviews obstacles in a given site, prepares a report with graphic illustrations, designs and sketches for effective implementation. Another important step is training and workshops.

They focus on capacity building, information sharing and knowledge generation for key stakeholders - mixed groups of government officials, architecture and engineering institutes, disabled persons organisations and NGO members including persons with disabilities. Advocacy with stakeholders and service providers to promote universal access in built, transport and tourist environment so that persons with disabilities can lead an independent, safe and dignified life.

Do you believe things are changing for persons with disability in the wake of the UN convention and other legal frameworks and the fact that the government is creating a new disability department?

Yes, the change is inevitable. Accessibility and reasonable accommodation is one of the fundamental principles in the UNCRPD that India has ratified. The commitment that we “must ensure to persons with disabilities access, on an equal basis with others, to the physical environment, to transportation, to information and communications, including information and communications technologies and systems, and to other facilities and services open or provided to the public.”

This mandate has no doubt defined a moral and legislative framework for all agencies to promote and implement access for all. It has given the much needed impetus to updating standards and guidelines for buildings, transportation infrastructure and services; creating barrier-free environments and removed the need to justify access for all.

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