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Saturday, 1 October 2016

Accessibility must be a special need for us all

A week before the terrible massacre in Paris earlier this year, my best friend went with her husband and young daughter on a trip to the City of Light they had promised themselves a long time ago. That he was now wheelchair bound did not impede their plans a whit.

From taking his battery-operated chair on board the Air France flight to the special cab that took them around Paris to their hotel room and bathroom, everything was kitted out for those with special needs. Parisians are not known to be particularly friendly to “outsiders”, including people from their own country. But amazingly, they pulled out all the stops for this doughty couple, helping them at every point. Privileged entry to museums and other public buildings was a given; even restaurants and washrooms were equipped to deal with wheelchairs.

Nary an inconvenient step or two impeded their access anywhere. They came back glowing with goodwill for Paris. When it comes to planning anything within our own vast and wondrous country, however, they are not that confident. Things are far from being truly “accessible” here. They are in the process of painstakingly finding out from domestic air carriers whether battery-operated wheelchairs are allowed on board and whether hotel rooms in India have rooms with high beds and manoeuvrable bathrooms that all international chains abroad now provide as a matter of course. For those with any sort of physical challenge, tourism within India is not easy.

Travel operators do specialize in organizing trips for them but options are not exhaustive. Transport for those incapacitated in some way is not guaranteed; tourist spots, whether architectural or natural do not necessarily ensure accessibility to all areas. While ramps are willingly provided as a nod to making premises “accessible”, more often than not, they are too steep and do not cover the entire property. India is leapfrogging on many indices, so it is not too much to expect that the tourism sector would gear up to welcome travellers with special needs. Indeed, one of the most subtle yet telling marker of a developed society is the attention it pays to special needs.

India fares poorly on this. Our pavements are too high or uneven, most buses and trains ignore those with mobility issues, buildings have stairs and steps in inconvenient places and our administrators generally do not care. Around 2.7 crore Indians have special needs– more than the population of Australia, actually. And while it’s been “mandatory” since 2009 for hotels to ensure accessibility and special rooms in line with best practices abroad, even most tourist destinations lack such facilities. In India, only one in 250 hotel rooms provide such features, as compared to the international ratio of 1:50. And the revised Rights of Persons with Disabilities Bill, 2014 is yet to be passed.

The Taj Mahal, Fatehpur Sikri and Sanchi Stupa confidently assert their accessibility. Kerala Tourism (usually an industry leader) is tomtomming Fort Kochi as its first accessible tourist spot while Karnataka government ambitiously announced on World Tourism Day earlier this week that 20 heritage destinations will be made “disabled-friendly”–by installing ramps and audio panels!–taking a cue from Tipu Sultan’s summer palace in Bengaluru, upgraded by ASI. The ASI has picked 50 monuments under its Adarsh Smarak Yojana to implement the “Accessible India” (Sugamya Bharat) campaign, including Ajanta and Ellora, Red Fort, the Qutab Minar complex, Ranthambore Fort, Konark’s Sun Temple and Hampi.

Solar wheelchairs and battery-operated buggies, Braille signs, tactile pathways, railings and special toilets are on the cards. But differently abled tourists need more than just monuments and hotels to be made accessible. The entire infrastructure has to be geared to be friendly to tourists with special needs, from transportation and pavements to restaurants, theatres, cinema halls, stadiums, parks and public buildings like post offices and shopping centres. Even in homes and offices, there is little consideration for special needs in India.

Why should we (and employers) not take an initiative too by making our individual environments accessible as well? Besides ramps, little things matter – no unnecessary steps (despite their alleged aesthetic value) to impede mobility, wider doorways and corridors, handles in bathrooms and, most importantly, a sensitive approach. My best friend and her family won’t have problems in my home…

Source: Economic Times , 1st Oct 2016 

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