#puneonmymind: Anita Iyer on how Smart City, Pune, must address needs of persons with disabilities
Much is changing… with better awareness on the part of persons with disabilities of their rights, and growing understanding of how accessibility means dignity and opportunity. Pune is beautiful, vibrant and smart. Hopefully, it will also be accessible and inclusive very soon.Updated: Jul 09, 2018 15:38 IST
India now has the Sugamya Bharat Abhiyaan, begun by the BJP, which mandates that all public places must be accessible for persons with disabilities (PwD). This includes the physical and virtual spaces too.
Accessibility is not to be seen through the narrow lens of physical or virtual access. It also means access to basic rights of a human being and his/her dignity. Let us look at some basic rights like education, employment, family and social interaction and how accessibility impacts all of these. Now 21 disabilities have been recognised by the government of India. Information about all these disabilities is yet to reach the anganwadis - social and health workers in slums and semi-urban areas. Access to information is imperative.
Pune has been called Oxford of the East. Students from across the state and country come here for their basic and advanced educational pursuits. So, students with disabilities come here too, hoping for better access and better academic opportunity. Inspite of several years of promises, policies and protests, we are yet to make much progress. Ramps, tactile paving and warning guides, signage, audio alarms/signals, Braille books, audio books, sign language support, assistive technology - made available and used with a little understanding and sensitivity would bring great results.
Under Sarva Shiksha Abhiyaan, schools cannot turn away children with disabilities. However, most schools still need resources and qualified staff to provide children with different challenges to actually benefit from the time spent in school. Popular schools in the city with high passing percentages are not all accessible or inclusive. The practise is to admit children with marginal learning, mobility or behavioural challenges and recommend exemptions in certain subjects. Ekansh Trust is approached by several parents who are stressed and demotivated by the apathy and lack of resources in the city. We are now encouraging parents to form hubs in different parts of Pune so that they can support each other in academics and other areas where the system must ideally support them. Special schools also admit that children are somehow helped to pass till a certain grade and then ‘mainstreamed’. This leads to a huge gap in social interaction and adjustment for the student with a disability in a higher class, not to mention the capacity to cope academically. Pune would do well, as a Smart City, to look into the needs of students with different disabilities and provide access to different academic courses and streams after schooling.
Children learn through play. How wonderful it would be to see children with, and without disabilities, playing together in parks. It increases the confidence levels of children with disabilities and sensitivity in children without. NGOs like ours would not need to sensitise adults anymore.
Many colleges have token ramps leading to a portion of the ground floor, but classrooms, labs and libraries are still out of reach. Some of the institutes with foreign board affiliations are exceptions, but enrolment of students with disabilities is still not optimal. Their education is, therefore, impacted. When these students later have to appear for job interviews, they must be equipped with the qualifications and skills to make it to the positions they aspire to.
Pune is also an industrial hub with many automotive and IT industries investing in land, campuses and offices here. While the newer hubs are fairly accessible as they abide by international standards, individual factory and office buildings must also take into account accessibility norms completely. Ekansh Trust has held job fairs and advocated inclusion of persons with disability (PwD) in the work force. However, sensitivity and understanding are important for inclusion. A 4% reservation for PwD in government posts exists, and large companies are encouraged to employ them too but if qualifications, attitudes and opportunity do not combine, this rule becomes difficult to implement. There are screen reading software and other assistive devices that can help persons with visual challenges. More companies must adopt these rather than deny candidates the opportunity to be self-reliant.
Accessible transport – public and private with modified vehicles and stops, would be a boon to our fellow commuters with disabilities. Our pavements, roads, pedestrian crossings, parks are mostly a study in inaccessibility. Bollards are placed with bold signage indicating wheelchair crossing areas, especially near the BRTS stops, but how do we take a wheelchair up to that point via the pavement provided? With open drains and pits, it is a wonder our blind friends do not end up getting hurt every other day. Our hearing impaired friends luckily have the Google map now to navigate the city.
Universal Design, which means design which facilitates easy access and use for everyone must be a huge and unalienable part of the engineering, product design, advertising, mass communication, architecture, civil engineering and urban designing courses with big marks to be lost for negligence. Ekansh reaches out to students from these streams [even management], for workshops that sensitise them to the need for inclusion. More recently we organised a two-day seminar on accessibility, at the behest of the erstwhile commissioner – department of Empowerment, PwD, Maharashtra, Nitin Patil; along with participants from the relevant departments of municipal and government departments across Maharashtra.
While appreciating creativity, we must also understand the advantages of accessibility and uniformity in design. They minimise confusion. Instead of small stretches of a few hundred metres being modified by small teams, we need the entire city re-imagined, redesigned and reconstructed uniformly by a large group of like-minded individuals from the architecture, civil engineering, and more importantly, urban planning backgrounds, who have travelled, experienced and been exposed to countries where human dignity is held sacred.
Much is changing… with better awareness on the part of PWD of their rights, and growing understanding of how accessibility means dignity and opportunity. Pune is beautiful, vibrant and smart. Hopefully, it will also be accessible and inclusive very soon.
First Published: Jul 09, 2018 14:21 IST