“I would be very happy if able-bodied people talk about these issues. Even we NEW DELHI: “People with disabilities always end up remaining the beneficiary of some kind of charity, not a person who is able to play a leadership role,” says Arman Ali, who is executive director of the National Centre for Promotion of Employment for Disabled People.

In India as per Census 2011, 2.21% of the total population are people with disabilities. According to the World Bank, one in every 12 Indian households include a person with a disability. Many estimates agree that people with disabilities are the world’s largest minority.

Parliament passed the Rights of Persons with Disabilities Act (RPWD) in December 2016. This law guarantees the fundamental rights of people with disabilities, and the duties of institutions and other citizens towards them. Access for the mobility-impaired is an important aspect of this, and access to public buildings and public spaces is supposed to be made barrier-free.

But Delhi is not an easy place for people with disabilities. It was reported recently that out of 560 buildings audited in the national capital, only 71 were disabled friendly. Another survey found that 82% of public toilets and 73% of drinking water facilities in public buildings remain accessible to disabled people. 30% of government buildings did not have wheelchair ramps and even 94% of healthcare facilities did not permit access to the disabled.

The Citizen visited a number of public and commercial places with the rights of disabled people in mind, beginning with the New Delhi Railway Station, where we found that the overall infrastructure was disabled-friendly. There is an escalator and a lift at its entrance, and the ticket counter inside has a separate counter for senior citizens and persons with disabilities.

But the drinking water basins were at a height that wouldn’t permit wheelchair access. And of the 16 platforms, only four had escalators to go down. Only the first platform had privately owned battery-operated cars that were charging Rs.24 per seat. We tried to contact the station manager for comment but were refused.

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Privately owned battery-operated cars at NDLS

By contrast the New Delhi Metro Station had both ramps and staircases, but the narrow footpaths in between the road crossings are steep and have no curb cuts.

Preeti Singh, a disability rights activist who was one of the petitioners to move the Delhi High Court against the Delhi Transport Corporation’s plan to acquire standard-floor buses, described her experience of travelling by train as “A nightmare. For me the train is a big no. There’s no ramp and the stations are not accessible. There’s no sort of hydraulic lifts or anything.”

Singh remarked that even in many metro stations, the washrooms for disabled people either remained locked or were turned into storerooms. “I think the Accessible India Campaign has failed miserably. It was promised that public washrooms would be made accessible but they are not even close to it.”

Abha Khetarpal, a disability activist from Delhi told us, “We are the forgotten tribe. The government had launched the Accessible India Campaign but nobody cares for its implementation.”

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Ramps for entering the New Delhi metro station. The condition of the road outside is much worse

We also visited a number of government buildings to check whether they are accessible to disabled people. Staff at the Central Secretariat library in Shastri Bhawan stated that apart from the entrance and exit there were no ramps inside the library to go to the floors above. Even the books were not easily accessible as there is no text-to-speech or Braille system, and not enough space between the shelves for someone in a wheelchair to navigate.

K.V.S.Rao, Director of the Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment, was unavailable for comment.

Superintendent Engineer (Civil) of the South Delhi Municipal Corporation Sudhir Kumar Mehta, when asked about the work done in this regard, said the SDMC’s responsibility is to look after public institutions and commercial buildings but not private buildings. He agreed that not much initiative has been taken except in building ramps and special toilets. He could not comment on evacuation plans in these buildings for people with disabilities as mentioned on their websites.

Mehta empashised that the MCD shares these responsibilities with other government authorities. When asked specifically about making public infrastructure friendly for the visually impaired he could not give much information.

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Broken ramps in front of public toilets (Source: Preeti Singh)

We asked award-winning disability activist Dr Satendra Singh more about the Accessible India Campaign. “It considered only 52 cities and does not include rural areas where 70% of the country lives. Even the app Sugamya Bharat is a total failure.”

Singh recalled, “I was there when this campaign was inaugurated on World Disability Day 2015 by Arun Jaitley as the PM was not in the city, and it was shameful that the venue itself was inaccessible. It took them one year to install hydraulic lifts in the building after complaints, which speaks volumes about the campaign in Delhi.”

As Singh reminded us, it’s not only about people with disabilities but also the elderly people, pregnant women and others whose mobility is impaired. “Hospitals are one of the most important places, but most of them do not have any arrangements to structure them according to the Harmonized Guidelines given in the RPWD Act.

“Accessible washrooms are important for patients with disabilities, but it has been five to six years of complaining to the Medical Council of India and still, many medical libraries and washrooms are not disabled-friendly.”

The situation is not very different at the premier All India Institute of Medical Sciences. After Singh’s petition, he told us, AIIMS admitted in writing to Chief Commissioner of Persons with Disabilities that making the hospital disabled-friendly was a daunting task even though they did not have a dearth of funds.

Singh further stated that AIIMS is ranked first by the National Institutional Ranking Framework when one of the parameters in this NIRF ranking is that the institution should be inclusive and disabled-friendly. For the past three years, Singh told us, AIIMS has been submitting wrong information about its accessibility.

Next we investigated the condition of public buses and bus stops. The government of Delhi stated early in the year that it would start plying 25 specially designed buses for persons with disabilities by March, as part of a bigger project of plying 1,000 buses by October.

According to Arman Ali, “This had to be introduced because someone filed a PIL and the High Court directed the government to make such special buses ply. It is not only about the buses but also about the bus stops, and the pavements so they can conveniently reach the bus stops. As disability is a broad term everyone under this term has to be kept in mind.”

Founder of the Nipman Foundation and disability activist Nipun Malhotra confirmed what we saw, that most bus stops in the city do not have staircases or ramps, and most zebra crossings are unsafe. “The Delhi Metro is quite good but it does not have wide connectivity.”

Preeti Singh agreed that “Except for the metro, no public transport is actually disabled-friendly. Reaching bus stops is a battle due to poor roads and no proper ramps. As for lifts, they promise they’ll build hydraulic lifts to get into the bus but it’s just words in the air right now. I don’t think they’ll exist in another three years.”

While the metro itself is convenient, reaching a station and the congestion within still pose big problems. Most of the commercial buildings, markets, restaurants that we checked out had still not been made accessible.

According to Malhotra, by law every building has to be made disabled-friendly otherwise it will be considered incomplete. “But unfortunately, no such implementation is seen today; for this the Delhi government could bring about a small policy change.”

Malhotra said that while the capital’s malls are disabled-friendly to a certain extent, major markets like Khan Market remain inaccessible. And areas like Hauz Khas Village are so narrow, and some places there have so many steps to climb, that even someone willing to help will find it difficult.

“Only on paper is it like a utopia kind of situation,” Abha Khetarpal agreed.

For Malhotra, the situation has improved in the past ten years because of two things: online tools like Zomato, where one can check whether the eatery is disabled-friendly, and the spread of places like malls that are very accessible. “A lot has to be done but it has definitely improved.”

Khetarpal found optimisim in the fact that universities like the University of Delhi and other government institutions “have started to notice us at least.”

Most of the people we spoke to agreed that people with disabilities are not able to question public schemes and the quality of basic facilities provided them, due to a very hostile environment. “One can’t even imagine a person with disabilities going out, using public transport, or going to their place of work alone. Hence they are forced to remain within the walls of their homes,” said Ali.

Ali also emphasised the neglect of the education system. “Special schooling should be done away with. Rather, schooling should be made feasible in a way that children with disabilities are able to go to school like any other child. There need to be teachers who can teach them, and special-needs material should be made available like recorded lectures or the facility of text-to-speech in computers.

“The entire concept of education has to be designed based on a universal design. Otherwise, an entire generation misses out.”

All these activists stressed on the universal design of public spaces, an inclusive mindset and attitude, and the importance of learning empathy not sympathy for this group.

Satendra Singh told us, “Often people think that this is a very small segment of the population, and able-bodied people think that this is not a condition that might happen to them. This is a very dangerous attitude because disability is one sector that anyone could become a part of anytime.

“I would be very happy if able-bodied people talk about these issues. Even we like to watch matches but the stadiums are not made disabled-friendly. We actually love going outside and it is largely linked to accessibility.”

As far as law and policy go, she said a number of states have not ratified their rules, so in effect they have yet to amend the law. She believes that the government should ask people with disabilities to participate in policy-making, to make a real difference.

Arman Ali believes that political parties do not see people with disabilities as vote banks because party politics is centered around able-bodied people.

“There is a lack of political will, extreme lack of awareness and historically, disability has been seen as a charitable, medical and a temporary issue. It is never talked about in terms of quality of the services and monitoring. They end up being beneficiaries of schemes and pensions, but what is important for the policies and systems in place is to ensure their self-determination.”

Concerning rights, Ali said “To assert our rights we need to know our rights, but the majority of people with disabilities have no idea about their rights. They end up thinking about disability as a problem that nothing can be done about. We need to show solidarity towards various disability groups whenever our rights are infringed. There needs to be public and judicial activism, so that any rights infringement will force the authorities to be responsible.”

Finally, the activists we spoke to emphasised that those with disabilities need to be made part of the mainstream, so they are not forced to show their disability as an identity or a qualification.

Cover photo: Arun Sharma / Hindustan Times