Mahima Sikand | TNN
Well-meaning laws have seldom changed the ground reality in India, and when it comes to disability legislations, things are no different. Despite a legal mandate to create friendlier infrastructure for the country’s 70 million people with disabilities, governments have done precious little. In Mumbai too, the design reform has been painfully slow in the coming.
Activists claim that almost all government buildings in the city disregard the needs of people with disabilities. ADAPT, a group working on accessibility rights for disabled people, conducted an audit of government buildings and facilities and discovered shocking lapses everywhere.
The Bombay high court did not have a disabled-friendly toilet until 2005, when some orthopedically challenged litigants brought the issue to its attention. Barring a few big names like JJ Hospital, most government hospitals do not have ramps at the entrance or elevators inside. And those that do have elevators do not have Braille buttons in them for visually impaired people. There are less than a dozen disabled-friendly public toilets in the city. The law requires audio-visual traffic signals for the benefit of blind and deaf people; yet, only the signal outside the office of the National Association of the Blind in Worli has the facility.
“When the government is flouting all regulations, it obviously has no right to expect private players to toe the line,” says Dr Anita Prabhu, co-chair of ADAPT.
No wonder, then, that the buildings that have come up over the last 15 years do not conform to the law. “It is understandably difficult to modify existing structures but what is the excuse for the constructions that have come up after 1995, when guidelines were legally mandated,” says Nilesh Singit, a disability rights activist.
Activists point out that the inability to commute is the biggest handicap for a physically challenged person, restricting his movement and his potential. “Today, the law requires 3% reservations for people with disabilities. But, even if someone gets a job, can he truly manage it if travelling to the workplace is such a challenge,” says Javed Abidi, a disability rights activist and director of the National Centre for Promotion of Employment for Disabled People (NCPEDP).
In 2009, hearing a PIL, the Bombay high court directed Central Railway and Western Railway to work out ways to make stations and trains accessible to people with disabilities. Two years later, barring a few major stations, most do not even have basic ramps. “Despite the court order, it is still impossible for a disabled person to travel by a local,” says Nilesh Singit, one of the litigants in the case.
Most railway stations in the city have over-bridges to enter and to travel between platforms, which make them inaccessible for wheelchair users. Even if the platform is somehow reached, it is impossible to board a train because of the difference in level and because of the gap between the platform and the train. “The authorities need to flush the trains with the platforms. This is a difficult task since different stations are of different height, but this is where planning would help. The Delhi Metro is a good example. Sadly, even the newer stations in Mumbai have no provisions for the physically challenged,” says Prabhu.
Even buses score dismally in this regard. In 2003, the BEST acquired 30 buses, which it claimed were disabled-friendly. Today, only a few of these are running. “When we were conducting an audit of BEST buses, so many of my colleagues who are disabled told me that it was the first time they had entered a bus. Almost no one in a wheelchair has ever travelled in a local train. That’s how bad the situation is,” says Prabhu.
Under the Persons with Disabilities (Equal Opportunities, Protection of Rights and Full Participation) Act, 1995, the government and local authorities must
- Install auditory signals at traffic signals on public roads for visually handicapped people
- Create curb cuts and slopes on pavements for easy access of wheelchair users
- Engraving on zebra crossings for the blind and for people with low vision Have Braille symbols and auditory signals in elevators Engraving on the edges of railway platforms for the blind and for people with low vision
- Devise appropriate symbols of disability Install warning signals at appropriate places
- Build ramps in public buildings
- Adapt toilets for wheelchair users