PHOTO BY: Credit: Abha Khetarpal
IAT-Abha'sSketch

New Delhi – It has been 65 years since India attained independence, but more than 50 million people in our country are still unable to enjoy the delicious flavor of independence. These individuals are people with disabilities – people who are still being oppressed, not by any colonial power, but by negative social attitudes, insensitivity, apathy and indifference of society and authorities.

For the disabled, there pervades a reign of inaccessibility. What does freedom mean for them when everywhere there are stairs without lifts, books without Braille print, and communication devoid of sign language? The disabled are nothing less than slaves in their own country in this supposed postmodern world of the 21st century.

The sight of a man who is visually impaired being clutched by his collar or his sleeve by people helping him cross the road is not new to us. To board a bus or train, the person with a disability is just carried like luggage. Inaccessibility makes people with disabilities hesitant to go out of their homes. They dread encountering raised footpaths, rugged and potholed roads, and the huge gaps between platforms and trains. Structural, social, and psychological barriers turn these impairments into handicaps.

Structural barriers include unfriendly vehicle design, pedestrian environment, infrastructure, and ironically, in this politics of vote bank, even polling booths are inaccessible. In order to reach accessible modes of transport, there are numerous obstacles which people with disabilities have to navigate.

Construction and scaffolding obstruct the pathways which are neither adequately marked, nor do they have safe diversion. Street cafés, vendors, tables and chairs create hurdles and can prove hazardous for someone with locomotor and visual impairments. Litter bins and flowerpots also contribute negatively, as they do not provide tactile or tonal warning on the pathway. These also prevent the passage of wheelchairs on the footpath. Bins with no contrasting color or high visibility attributes can be the cause of a mishap for visually impaired people.

The problem can become manifold when high winds scatter bin contents. Randomly parked vehicles and advertising billboards can be hazardous, as the width of public footpaths becomes less safe for wheelchairs. The occurrence of dog fouling or cow dung on Indian streets is a common phenomenon. This is an unacceptable environmental hazard for all pathway users, particularly so for visually impaired people.

Access to transport services must not only include easy availability and plying on the vehicles – it is a complete package which includes appropriate streets and pathways, waiting areas, and bus stops. What would be the use of a low floor bus, if a person in a wheelchair can’t even reach the bus stop!

Social barriers include cost, lack of awareness among the general public and lack of communication. Those who are not disabled don’t realize that most people experience disability at some point in their lives through illness, accident or aging. Help to the disabled, when offered by people, is in either patronizing or in demeaning ways. Even the basic desires to go to school, temples, out with friends, watching a movie in the theatre, and getting married remain out of their reach.

Psychological barriers stem from attitudinal barriers posed by society. Attitudinal barriers make the societal relationships unequal. What I realized personally when I was a student, was that sometimes attitudinal barriers are worse than architectural barriers. Ramps and staircases can be easily installed with a little bit of expenditure, but what about the chasms in the hearts – how does one build staircases to closed minds? Buildings can be made accessible, but what about social acceptance, which still remains inaccessible.

All this leads to low self esteem and fear of personal security in the minds of people with disabilities when moving out of home alone without any escort. Attitudinal barriers, whether intentional or unintentional, pose unique implications and apprehensions caused by stereotypes and social stigmatization.

Environmental and organizational hurdles prevent a person with a disability from accessing equal opportunities in education, employment, housing, transport, leisure and many other things. Lack of education and employment create a vicious circle, where people with disabilities have to live in abject poverty, particularly in rural areas and in small towns. Though they are capable of productive work, they are regarded as incapable.

Although India is a signatory to the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (PwDs) crafted in 2008, which calls for making buildings, workplaces, facilities, information, communication, and other services accessible to PwDs on an equal basis, in practice the implementation of a barrier-free environment seems to be a distant dream.

Unable to study, work and move about freely, people with disabilities have to live a life of isolation. Their basic right of movement has been consistently and historically denied. The economy is also not left untouched when it has to face the sting of major losses in its productive capacity.

Subhash Chandra Bose, a great freedom fighter, famously said, “Give me blood and I will give you freedom.”  At present, 65 years after achieving freedom from 100 years of colonial rule, I think this slogan needs to be rephrased, especially by people with various form of disabilities. To me, it should say, “Give me accessibility and I will give you productivity.”

Let this section of society become visible in the agendas and policies of the policy makers. Let them walk towards freedom, finally, after 65 years of independence.

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