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Saturday, 21 February 2015

One size fits all?

Despite being a hub for rehabilitation studies and services, Tiruchi still lags behind when it comes to providing a barrier-free environment for the differently-abled and elderly.

  • An elderly passenger catches his breath on the steps of a bus at the central bus stand in Tiruchi. Photo: A.Muralitharan
    An elderly passenger catches his breath on the steps of a bus at the central bus stand in Tiruchi

  • For many residents of Tiruchi, nearly every public space seems to have a design protocol that covertly excludes senior citizens and the differently-abled from venturing out without fear of injury, or in extreme cases, fatal accidents.

    This insensitivity, whether at a personal or policy level, is all the more ironic when one considers the city’s sterling reputation as a regional and state-level hub of rehabilitation studies and services.

    A group of educators from the Research Department of Rehabilitation Science and Special Education, Holy Cross College, lists out the barriers that have made self-reliance in a public place almost impossible for the differently-abled in particular. “Disabled-friendly public toilets are a must,” says P. Nagalakshmi, Associate Professor. “The existing toilets, especially in schools and colleges, should be fitted with grab bars. Right now, they are forced to use the toilet by crawling on the wet floor. A low-level railing near the water closet will be of great help.”

    Summing up the general attitude of the public when it comes to affirmative action, she says, “People think that sponsoring a free meal for the special needs kids is enough. But special schools should not accept these charitable donations, it takes away from their core purpose to encourage an inclusive society.”

    A recent student project by the department found that government buildings in Tiruchi had more accessibility problems than privately-owned structures, when compared against a checklist provided by the Rehabilitation Council of India (RCI).

    Among the many glaring examples of policy oversight that the educators listed are: the lack of even one public park with modified street furniture and playground equipment for differently-abled children, the uneven paving of sidewalks which makes it off-limits for wheelchair-use, and the absence of audio guides at traffic signals to help visually-impaired pedestrians safely across busy junctions in the city.

    Nearly everyone interviewed for this article mentioned the apathy of transport staff to the plight of passengers hampered by age or disability.

    Not special, but equal

    “India is a signatory to the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UNCRPD), which has many legislative provisions for creating a barrier-free environment,” says C. 

    Shanthakumar, director, The Spastics Society of Tiruchirapalli. “It is wrong to even call them ‘special’, instead we should treat them as our equals,” he says.

    The Society’s day-care and educational centre in Ramalinga Nagar has already put into practice, most of the recommendations of the Convention in its 15,000 square feet campus. Students on wheelchairs can pay their fees by approaching the specially lowered reception counter, which also has enough knee space.

    A ramp, designed at the ratio of one foot of ramp to each inch of rise (1:12), runs right up to the third floor of the building. Unlike hospital ramps, which are commonly steeper and narrower, this walkway encourages children to exercise their limbs and also helps caregivers or users to push wheelchairs up and down with ease and safety.

    “Due to the increase in the average life span, many people have a second innings in their late sixties,” says Shanthakumar.

    “These days, senior citizens opt to work in the private sector after retirement. This section of the population has its own needs, which have to be catered to.”

    Towards inclusion

    For M. Prabhavathy, Assistant Professor and Head, Centre for Differently Abled Persons, Bharathidasan University, disability is simply an inability to function normally.

    “These days we are getting geriatric problems like chronic knee pain at a younger age,” she says. “This is also an impairment, and not something confined to just a particular set of people. Only when the authorities treat it as a universal issue, will there be a change in policies and building design.”

    For veteran resident Dr. Bapu Mathuram, who uses a walking stick regularly, the uneven roads pose a problem. “If there’s a small gap in the surface, the stick can get caught in it,” he says, adding that he rarely goes out unaccompanied these days because of he fears the danger of tripping. 

    “Small changes, like a railing can help us to climb stairs easily,” he suggests. “Most people are quite courteous and helpful when you approach them, but in places like banks and government offices, a special lane to fast-track senior citizens and the differently-abled will be useful.”

    Who cares?

    The ground reality for many of the city’s differently-abled and senior citizens

    1. Automated Teller Machines (ATMs) are invariably accessible only to those who can climb stairs without any support. Plush doors that tend to swing back hard, can be a safety hazard.

    2. State and private buses with steep steps that are a challenge to every traveller, not just the differently-abled or the elderly. Insensitive staff shout at slow passengers, and also start the vehicle before everyone is safely on board and do not ensure that the seat reserved for the disabled by law is kept vacant for them.

    3. Staircases without railings. Those that do have banisters/railings, are rendered unusable by silly ‘beautification’ ideas like having serial lights draped around the metal, or flower pots on each step which further impede access.

    4. Swank new buildings that need a magic carpet to take the old and differently-abled to the entrance on the first floor, because though underground parking is available, there’s no lift from the basement.

    5. Very few wheelchair-users are seen on the pavements, because these are already occupied by street hawkers and illegally parked vehicles.


    Design checklist

    Some of the user-friendly features of The Spastics Society of Tiruchirapalli building

    1. International signage

    2. Reception counter with knee space for wheelchair users

    3. Double doors, with one bigger than the other, to accommodate walking aids; with push handles and a glass panel

    4. A zero-obstruction corridor; all doors and windows open inward rather than outward to prevent injury to corridor users.

    5. Ramp: Gradient not steeper than 12 inches.

    6. Round handrails with continuous grip, extends out in landing area.

    7. Short, rounded steps

    8. Lift at a low height, on level with floor, with handrails and buttons with Braille lettering at a lower level

    9. Toilets with grab bars

    10. Wash basins with long handle levered-taps and knee space below the sink

    Source : The Hindu , 20th Feb 2015 

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