A sword that still hangs

One of the prominent lessons taught in high school is the difference between ‘sympathy’ and ‘empathy’. Yet most of us end up showing pity whether at a poor child on a traffic signal or at a wheelchair bound person. From sympathising eyes to inaccess to disabled-friendly infrastructure, persons with disability (PwDs) face many challenges across cities. Metrolife spoke to a few in the capital to know what it entails. 

On a recent visit to Rohini Metro Walk, a mall and amusement park, Abha Khetarpal, encountered “another instance where there is no sensitivity towards persons with disabilities”. The wheelchair bound polio survivor recounts, “They didn’t even have a ramp. Attitude is the biggest barrier which needs to be removed.” A practising counsellor and a psychotherapist, she adds, “The environment is very unkind. To be independent is a distant dream for us.” Pointing out that accessibility is not only making ramps and providing wheelchair to a PwD, she states, “It also needs to be inclusive and should be a complete package, say in instances of disaster management.” While mentioning that PwDs are often looked at as an excluded group, she states that hospitals are not fully medically equipped to cater to PwDs. “We are sometimes treated as untouchables. In fact, not a single hospital in the country has an accessible mammogram or breast-examining machines.”

Census 2011 data shows ‘decadal increase in proportion of PwDs is significant in urban areas’ from 1.93 percent to 2.17 percent. Hinting at the need for job creation for PwDs, Pranav Desai, founder of Voice of Specially Abled People (VOSAP), an advocacy NGO, says that the intention is to make company managements take “inclusive decisions”. “They are nonvisible in the mainstream community. It is just not only a money issue. It is about empowerment.”

Government’s Accessible India Campaign, an initiative for equal opportunity and universal access building has recently mentioned wheelchair friendly buildings, widespread sign language training, skill training and easy accessibility of loans to make the country more amenable to PwDs.

Khetarpal shares, “India comes out with the best policies but is poorest at their implementation. That is why, I am keeping my fingers crossed.”

Presently, there is no national guideline on universal infrastructure for PwDs. Anjlee Agarwal, founder of advocacy NGO Samarthyam mentions, “A unified design guideline is pending for approval under the Ministry of Urban Development. The one under Central Public Works Department is faulty.”

Agarwal was an athlete and a Bharatnatyam dancer but with muscular dystrophy or progressive weakening of the muscles setting in, she was forced to occupy a wheelchair. Now, with her NGO which is a partner in the Accessible India Campaign, she shares, “The mandate is to have universal design in terms of infrastructure of public buildings, public transport and information and communication technology.”

Dr H S Chhabra, chief of Spine Services and medical director, Indian Spinal Injuries Centre (ISIC) deals with PwDs on a regular basis. Pointing out that availability of wheelchairs at airports and lifts at metro stations are some changes that would not have been visible, a couple of decades ago, he says, “Things are somewhat better but far from ideal.”He goes on to mention the need for a “comprehensive rehabilitation including physical, psychological and vocational aspects”.

While mentioning the case of Tokyo in Japan where “an accessible washroom can be seen at a distance of every five kilometers”, Agarwal questions why can’t sensitivity be shown to make disability, a human right issue in India. She concludes, “Disability is seen in India as a charity and care issue. But it is a basic human right.”

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