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Making buildings accessible for the disabled

By Aparna Datta

A quick survey amongst architects, builders and corporate firms reveals that currently, accessibility of buildings for disabled persons is a non-issue. Apart from hospitals and specialized institutions, few people involved in the planning and construction of buildings actively consider or give weightage to the architectural aspects of mobility for disabled persons. Three distinct trends point to the urgent need to re-think on the status quo:

  • An increase in the number of disabled people in the workforce. On an average, four people die in road accidents in Bangalore everyday. Many injuries, however, go unreported. Young people, who could otherwise lead productive lives even with some disability, are denied the opportunity simply because their workplaces do not incorporate design features which could allow rehabilitation.
  • Increased longevity. With better health and nutrition, people are living longer. Disability increases in older age groups; yet pensions and savings could mean that disposable income would still be available. Such people would remain consumers of goods and leisure facilities, for a longer period, if only buildings were made accessible to them.
  • Reduction in care-givers. Traditionally, the family and society have been providing physical and emotional support to handicapped and disabled persons. Yet with younger people migrating abroad, many elderly parents now fend for themselves back in India.

Institutionalized support by way of old age homes is yet to gain acceptance. Old people generally hobble along as best as they can, but could lead more self-reliant lives if social systems were more supportive.

Disability in the prime of one’s life or in old age is one thing; being born with a disability is another. Take the case of spastic children, having to adjust to spending an entire life-time in a wheelchair, yet with normal mental faculties. Vipin Janardhan, a tenth standard student of Spastics Society of Karnataka school, loves going to movies. But in Bangalore, only Galaxy has a ramp that allows him free access.

Recently, Kemp Fort opened with great fanfare. Yet, for all the exotic décor, there is simply no provision for access in a wheelchair. Fortunately, Shopper’s Stop has the necessary arrangements. Raheja Group demonstrates sensitivity to this issue – Raheja Towers on MG Road is perhaps one of the few office buildings in the city with a ramp, and an elevator wide enough to comfortably take a wheelchair.

The issue of accessibility inevitably invites comparisons, and shows up laggards. A paraplegic visitor from Mumbai wanted decent hotel accommodation in Bangalore, but was obliged to stay at the Oberoi, way beyond her budget, because it was the only hotel in Bangalore with doors in the guest rooms wide enough to take her wheelchair.

The problem, according to N S Hema, honorary president of the Association of People with Disability (APD) is that we, as a society, accept and tolerate too much. The team of therapists at the Spastics Society pointed out that while their wards were completely mobile within the compound at their Indiranagar center, they couldn’t use their wheelchairs outside because the pavements in Bangalore are so awful.

Do we need public interest litigation to protect the rights and safety of pedestrians and sidewalk users?

It is obvious that legislation is needed to get things moving. The Persons with Disabilities (Equal Opportunities, Protection of Rights and Full Participation) Act 1995 provides for the appointment of a commissioner in a state government to take steps to safeguard the rights and facilities made available to persons with disabilities.

Clearly the Act needs more teeth and more definition with regard to access of buildings. V Narasimhan, architect at Venkataramanan Assocites, believes that only punitive legislation, with financial penalty and associated social ostracism will work.

The fact is that even in the US, it was the Americans with Disabilities Act 1990 that ushered in change. President George Bush (Senior) was finally persuaded to sign the Act following a crawl-in where disabled people left their wheelchairs and climbed the steps outside the White House.

The Act has been in force since 1992, but the impact has been considerable. Most public buildings, libraries, offices, airports etc., have mandatory ramps and special toilet facilities; even transportation such as buses, trains and subway systems have provisions for disabled people. An important aspect is the time frame – specification have been laid down for modifications to be carried out within a certain time limit; all new constructions have to adhere to norms which have been laid down.

According to Chapal Khasnabis, executive director of Mobility India, a building should be designed keeping the needs of the disabled in mind – then the able could comfortably use it as well. Split-levels are a no-no.

Expense is the usual excuse for not providing facilities. But Basavaraj, at APD offers three simple guidelines: do away with steps at entrances wherever possible, or provide ramps; make doors wide enough to take a wheelchair; ensure that the height of the toilet bowl in Western style toilets is appropriate.

These features are the basic minimum. Considering the expensive decorative value-additions in many public buildings like hotels and shopping malls, with extensive landscaping, atria, etc., incorporating facilities for the disabled seems only the humane thing to do.

Much as environment consciousness is now an indicator of social responsibility, caring for the disabled could well be another dimension to demonstrate good corporate citizenship. Leading companies and leisure industries would do well to respond.

The process, says Chapal Khasnabis, needs to start at architecture and design schools where accessibility of buildings should be included in the syllabus. Further, authorities involved in sanctioning building plans need to understand the issues.

The saving grace currently in India is that we do have human support systems, feels Raghu Shenoy, 30, who runs his own software firm, Bit by Bit Computer Services Pvt. Ltd., Bangalore from his wheelchair. But changing demographics pose a challenge. Fifty million disabled people might not seem a large number. But the figure does not account for the millions of elderly people.

Architects, builders, decision-makers need to become more aware, more sensitive and put the accessibility of buildings onto the agenda.

© Aparna Datta, 1998

Published in Assets – Property pages of The Times of India, Bangalore, February 12, 1998

N.B. Some changes have taken place since this article was written in 1998. Galaxy cinema theatre has been demolished. But several multiplexes and malls have come up in Bangalore, which incorporate ramps and the like. Tickets for movies might be expensive, but at least the facility is available for the disabled.



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