Another brick in the wall

Published by Ruchira Sarin | August 8, 2016 | in Universal Design

Shabnam has found her dream apartment: a swank new studio unit that’s yet to be built, set amidst pristine gardens on the outskirts of our ever-growing metropolis. The location is perfect—an hour closer to her office! Shabnam is thirty-two and independent, so the 1 BHK is just the right size for her. Plus, with those two extra hours saved from her commute every day, she can finally get back to pursuing her vocal music passion and her ‘riyaaz’, which she’d lost long ago in the traffic hustle. So, starry-eyed, Shabnam books an appointment and takes a cab to meet the builder at the site.

A cartoon strip of a employer and wheelchair user
Hey Young Lady…We Don’t have facilities for disabled in this project…I can offer you a good option at our upcoming project for OLD AGE & RETIRED people…around 30Km pollution free environment

When Shabnam alights from her cab and wheels herself toward the condominium’s marketing office, she is stopped short by the 2 steps leading up to the gleaming office doors. She’ll have to wait for a passer-by on this lazy Sunday afternoon, when even the security guard at the site’smain gate is enjoying his siesta. She did not stop to fill in her details at the counter on her way in, for she prefers to avoid the feeling such tasks always give her—as though she’s trying to reach the dishes on a dining table while sitting on the floor. So Shabnam now waits patiently for a good Samaritan to assist her; she studies the gathering clouds and hopes it doesn’t start to drizzle. But two people do arrive and she thanks her stars that she didn’t have to wait for eternity. After Shabnam coyly asks for help, they lift her in her wheelchair and she finds herself,  finally, on the plinth.

But alas, those shiny glass doors now stand closed before her. She wishes she’d had those extra two ‘dosas’ for breakfast—and possibly also an energy drink—to prepare her for today’s test of her brute strength against this gigantic glass door; opening this, she realizes with a sigh, will be tougher to do than flushing the toilet in the restroom at her workplace. So again she waits until a hurried sales executive, searching for a mobile signal on his very smartphone, breezes out the door. Nabbing her chance, Shabnam propels her wheelchair at a pace that could win her a place in a Para-Olympic event, and just misses being banged in the behind by the automatic door-closer. Phew!

Finally,Shabnam isseated in a discussion room and two tie-clad salespeople burst in, juggling their colorful brochures and sleek papers. Seeing Shabnamin her wheelchair, their faces drop, their excitement fades, for they have nothing to offer this prospective client. Undaunted, Shabnamexplains that she was eyeing a studio on the podium level of their complex. But alas! The salespeople grimace. The lifts do not stop on that level! There’s no way for her to reach the podium from the building lobby!The condo salespeoplegive each other desperate glances, fearing they’re about to lose a deal, when suddenly one of them remembers a senior citizens’ housing complex that’s coming up in another development, 60 kms away.‘That would suit this young woman much betterthan the place she was looking at!’ the salesperson thinks; he whispers to his colleague and regains his satisfied smile. ‘Ma’am why don’t you consider that?’

But there goes Shabnam’s dream of musicwith those 2 extra hours in hand; whisking to her place of work; watching moviesin the condo’s state-of-the-art auditorium;being pampered at the condo salon. Her thoughtsof ease and convenience rush rightback out through that heavy glass door, even faster than she had so spryly wheeledin. Shabnam pulls in a breath and feels the heat rise in her cheeks. Had these salespeople really just advised her to live 60 kms away?! To live in a community of people older than her Grandma!She would need to opt for a VRS!And to make matters worse, Shabnam can hear their unspoken thoughts, ‘Why does this lady need a salon and a movie to entertain herself on the weekend?’

It’s high time we wake up to this hard-hitting reality and stop killing the dreams of Shabnam—and lakhs of other persons with disabilities—by continuing to build non-inclusive infrastructure. Young Shabnam’s story could also be your story or mine, someday, for even the Buddha couldn’t escape sickness and ageing. We build special schools, special housing, special lifts, special doors, special make shift ramps—yet there are better ways than these to make people with disabilities and elderly people feel special.Instead, we should practice Universal Design: a design principle that helps all of us.

Why install grab-bars only in toilets meant for the elderly and the disabled people? Why have voice announcements in a lifts only if it would be used by disabled people? Why exclude disabled people from building fire drills, when we’re unprepared to handle them in an emergency? Why make our building signage unreadable by those with impaired vision? The questions are too many—but the answer to all is the same: Our building codes that specify these requirements provide necessary details only in a separate annexure. And since the accessibility standards aren’t mentioned to design a special building meant for persons with disabilities. But as we enter a new millennium of nation rebuilding, with fresh concepts for smart cities and sustainable development goals, isn’t it time that our building codes and standards were also revamped, so that no one is left out? It is not “us and them”.  All of us disabled or temporarily non disabled need accessible facilities. All of us will use these facilities at sometime or the other in our lifetime.  We rather would like to live in a place where we can continue to live even when we become disabled / older with our children and family  rather than moving to a special facility for the elderly.  We would like to live where there is health facility as well as a beauty salon, children’s park and a gym. That’s the approach that would be truly inclusive. The inclusive society that we have aspired towards for so long can be achieved if we follow Universal Design principles for all of our upcoming and existing infrastructure. May good sense prevail and into that heaven of freedom, let India awake!

Cartoon Courtesy – Ashish Sharma, Director, Anubhuti Architect and Interior Designers, Jaipur

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About the Author

Ruchira Sarin is an Architect with a leading architectural practice and is an Architect partner with Diversity and Equal Opportunity Centre, DEOC. DEOC is a social enterprise formed by multi-disciplinary professionals with a vision to create an inclusive world. DEOC offers consulting, research and training services to corporates, developmental and government organisations to promote equality and inclusion for persons with disabilities. Ruchira has over 10 years of experience in Universal Design and a background in accessibility of built environment. As a part of DEOC, she has been involved in research of various Indian and International standards related to accessibility of physical infrastructure. She has been involved in research, training, infrastructure audits and consultancy to several prestigious organizations.

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