It struck a disparate note with the country’s 26.8 million disabled. On February 12, the very day the Indian cricket team was making us proud by winning the Blind World T20 title, a physically challenged girl was made to climb two dozen stairs to reach her seat in a government exam hall. Upset by the report, the Madhya Pradesh Human Rights Commission has sought an explanation from the secretary of the state’s public service commission.
But the issue goes beyond asking an individual or organisation why they didn’t make requisite arrangements for physically challenged candidates taking an exam. Our built environment is notoriously disabled unfriendly. Apart from the Delhi Metro, most forms of public transport haven’t been designed with the disabled in mind. Social discrimination and lack of job opportunities are not the only battles India’s physically challenged fight on an everyday basis. Even before the demonetisation note ban, it was almost impossible for wheelchair users to draw money because most ATMs have staircases leading up to them. Leave aside displaying sensitivity for the disabled in public places, most cinemas have no designated spaces for wheelchair users. Even in cities, the number of national monuments that have ramps is few. Even though India was the first major nation to ratify the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, most workplaces fail to provide a barrier-free environment.
It isn’t that our policy makers are deaf to the requirement for an accessible environment. In 2015, Prime Minister Narendra Modi launched the Sugamya Bharat Abhiyan (Accessible India Campaign) on World Disability Day amid much fanfare. The campaign entailed making at least 50% government buildings disabled friendly and the development of an index to measure the design of disabled-friendly buildings. But its implementation has been sluggish at best.
The Rights of Persons With Disabilities Act 2016 has been amended to include private firms in the definition of ‘establishments’ (that previously referred to just government bodies) which have to ensure that persons with disabilities are provided with barrier-free access in buildings, transport systems and public infrastructure. Section 45 of the Act requires all public buildings to be made accessible within five years of notification of rules. The revised National Building Code of India should incorporate elements of universal design to bring down barriers for the disabled. Once the physical barriers for the disabled begin to go, prejudices against them will follow.