Let us move away from perceptions of ‘specialness’

In India, millions of rupees are spent on digging up roads but not a thought is given to accessibility for wheelchairs. Can we not learn from cities like London?

A wheelchair-bound person finds it almost impossible to move around on their own in Mumbai (and other Indian cities).  Photo: Getty Images
A wheelchair-bound person finds it almost impossible to move around on their own in Mumbai (and other Indian cities). Photo: Getty Images

Malini Chib

Why do we have an International Day of Persons with Disabilities? Are we special? Should we be called ‘divyang’, meaning that disabled people are divine?

The observance of this day serves as a global reminder of the ongoing struggle for equal rights, inclusion and accessibility for people with disabilities. It’s not about showcasing our ‘specialness’ but acknowledging the unique hurdles we face in a world designed for a narrow definition of ‘normal’.

I have lived half my life in London and half in Bombay. I find London accepting and friendly. In London, I am a person, a human being doing mundane chores and getting on with living the life that I choose.

The creation of the electric wheelchair was revolutionary for people like me who cannot walk. It gave me a new sense of independence. Before I started using it, I was accompanied everywhere by my parents. The streets of London being so accessible and the people so non-instructive and helpful (only when required), I soon felt confident of going out on the busy streets on my own. My mother, however, needed a lot of persuasion before she let me go!

I remember the first time I went out on my own. In the midst of the hustle and bustle of London’s traffic, I felt terrific. It felt phenomenal to just be part of a crowd. My spirits were high and a sense of adventure crept over me as I wandered down lanes and went in and out of buses, all in my electric wheelchair. I could not believe my newfound freedom. For the first time, I could go wherever I wanted, whenever.

I was ecstatic to have the power to move around on wheels. It didn’t matter that I was in a wheelchair. As I walked around the crowded streets, I felt alive and free.

This mobility on the roads, which everyone takes for granted in the developed world, I did not have in India. It gave me a big boost. I did everything, from window shopping to actual marketing for groceries, vegetables and medicines, to attending theatre and film shows, to exploring the city—all on my own. I had never before experienced this form of freedom in my life.

Currently, I live in Bombay. I work part-time in Bombay House on the Diversity team at Tata Sons. I also work in ADAPT, formerly The Spastics Society of India, advising them on the new approach to disability which is the ‘Social Model’.

Here in Bombay, I am pushed around in my wheelchair. Due to the stairs and potholes, I can’t go anywhere on my own. Wherever I go, I always need somebody to come with me. When somebody is with you constantly, the person on the wheelchair does not make any decisions. He or she just becomes a silent, non-contributing… zombie! No participation, no interaction.

But, why can’t we go anywhere on our own? Millions of rupees are spent on digging up roads but not a thought is given to accessibility for wheelchairs.

The Rights of Persons with Disabilities (RPWD) Act has failed to plug these gaps. According to the RPWD Act 2016, we need to:

• Respect the inherent dignity of all.

• Establish individual autonomy, including the freedom to make one’s own choices, and independence of persons.

• Ensure full and effective participation and inclusion in society.

This can be achieved if the following cardinal principles are followed:

• Respect for difference and acceptance of persons with disabilities as part of human diversity and humanity.

• Equality of opportunity, and equality of men and women.

• Accessibility to schools, colleges, companies and communities.

Article 9 of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UNCRPD) 2006, is on accessibility. It says, ‘To enable persons with disabilities to live independently and participate fully in all aspects of life, States Parties shall take appropriate measures to 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, both in urban and in rural areas.'

'These measures, which shall include the identification and elimination of obstacles and barriers to accessibility, shall apply to, inter alia: 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.’

The biggest flaw is non-implementation, non-accountability, non-punitive action. The mentality of India’s general public is so lackadaisical. Even among those who mean well. I remember a staff member of ADAPT telling me, “Why are you going on morchas, we are here to help you up and down the stairs… don’t worry about anything.”

During Boris Johnson’s term as mayor of London, the Accessible London Supplementary Planning Guidance was drawn up. New developments in the capital were built to the very highest levels of accessibility. London reaped the rewards, by hosting the 2012 Paralympics Games, which were recognised as the ‘most inclusive ever’.

The Games demonstrated what can be achieved when inclusive design principles are embedded in a project from the outset. The Olympic park and venues were designed with accessibility enshrined within the thinking of the designers, not just to enable the Paralympic athletes to excel at their sport, but also to ensure that disabled spectators, staff, volunteers, family and press could participate and enjoy the games to the same extent as non-disabled people.

In a recent survey, 81 per cent of people said the Games had a positive impact on how disabled people are viewed by the British public.

Investment in London’s transport network also brought step-free access to many rail stations, all buses and black cabs, and the entire DLR (Docklands Light Railway). London today is one of the most accessible cities in the world. Earlier this month, the mayor confirmed plans for a £75m fund to speed up the rate at which the London Underground network is being made accessible for disabled Londoners and visitors to the capital.

Here in India, as we commemorate the International Day of Persons with Disabilities, let us reflect and learn from these lessons. Let us focus on becoming an inclusive society where everyone, regardless of ability, can thrive. Let us move away from perceptions of ‘specialness’ and instead work towards a world where diversity is not just acknowledged but embraced and celebrated as an integral part of the human experience.

I will always live and work in India, but part of me will always long and belong to England because of the accessibility I enjoy there, and the way people see me and include me. In the West, I am a person in my own right. Here I am no one, rather isolated and rather lonely.

Yet, I still retain my joie de vivre.

Follow us on: Facebook, Twitter, Google News, Instagram 

Join our official telegram channel (@nationalherald) and stay updated with the latest headlines