Interview

Volume 2 Issue 16 - August 15, 2004

Breaking down barriers

Anjlee Agarwal, fashion designer by profession, runs a boutique in Delhi. She has muscular dystrophy. Sanjeev Sachdev was doing his PhD, when he developed muscular dystrophy and unstable angina. Together, they have taken up the cause of unhindered mobility, transforming their motto "Let's make the World Accessible" into reality through Samarthya (capability), a Delhi-based centre that promotes barrier-free environments for disabled people. They spoke to Madhu Mishra Jassal of DNIS on making barrier-free environments fashionable.

Picture of Anjlee Agarwal and Sanjeev Sachdeva of Samarthya

When was Samarthya launched?

Samarthya was launched in 1996. We have a team of seven people, adding new dimensions to the concept of access for a barrier-free environment. We started organising excursion tours outside Delhi for people with disabilities. These trips worked as a form of travel therapy for disabled people, giving them knowledge about other disabilities and instilling confidence. It also provided an opportunity to interact with NGOs in other cities, thereby creating a network of people involved with the disability movement. So far, we have organised 61 tours to various parts of India. The experience has helped us to venture into offering consultation/advice to promote barrier-free tourism, along with accessible transportation, accommodation and public services.

What is a Universal barrier-free environment?

Life remains a challenge not only for people with disabilities but also for the elderly. The word access means freedom of information or easy mobility. When we target only disabled people, at 10 per cent of the population, the powers-that-be are not interested in complying. Everything starts with access, not only for the disabled, but also for other people with mobility problems. The truth is that many people encounter the same problems as disabled people, for example pregnant women, those with heavy baggage, small children and older people. So when we talk about visible signage, convenient water closets, easy parking, ramps with a gentle slope of a minimum of 1:12 gradient and so on, it is not just disabled people who benefit. We call this the universal barrier-free environment. It is not just disabled-friendly it is user-friendly.

Did you face any opposition, or was the public receptive to the idea of improving access in public places?

Initially there was opposition just because the awareness among the public was low. But when people realised the economic sense of making their establishments accessible to all, they became more receptive to the idea. We found the best approach was to appeal the public, to make disabled-friendly environments - such as theatres, shopping complexes and holiday resorts - "fashionable". Recent legislation and lobbying by NGOs working on disability issues has also helped create awareness among the general public.

We believe that access is creating and maintaining environments in which all people can participate in ways that are equitable, dignified, and which maximise independence, conserve energy and are safe and affordable for all.

What has been the government's attitude towards a universal barrier-free environment and has it changed since the organisation was set up?

We are not acting as critical evaluators of the service providers; rather we have adopted the approach of giving them the insight and expertise to help them develop barrier-free environments. Making Delhi's upmarket tourist hotspot, Dilli Haat, barrier-free was a joint venture between Delhi Tourism, New Delhi Metropolitan Corporation and the Union Ministry of Textiles, turning it into possibly the first barrier-free tourist spot in the nation.

Picture of persons with disability at a railway station

The success of this project provided the impetus for other accessibility projects, such as working with the Delhi government on promotion of barrier-free buses, High Capacity Bus Systems and making metro stations accessible to all. We have also worked with the Research and Design Standards Organization (RDSO) at the Ministry of Railways in Lucknow to develop disabled-friendly rail coaches. And when Mumbai started building a bazaar on the lines of Dilli Haat, the authorities there contacted us for advice.

Are Indian tourism policies sensitive towards accessibility issues for disabled people? What should be the role of Indian tourism to promote barrier-free environments?

The Ministry of Tourism is India's the second highest source of revenue generation. So it is very important for tourism policies to promote barrier-free environments. The major obstacles in using the existing modes of transportation include movement between levels (bus depots, railway stations, airports and harbours), procedures (ticketing, immigration, check-in, transit, baggage), information (announcements and displays), services (passenger assistance, retail outlets, money exchanges) and toilet access. Other areas of concern are site accessibility, architectural barriers in places of accommodation and the lack of need-specific travel packages.

The excursion tours have led to some positive changes, such as youth hostels being made accessible to disabled people and railway stations getting special toilets. The Archaeological Survey of India has also made it mandatory to ensure disabled-friendly access at all sites and monuments maintained by it.

What has been your biggest achievement till date?

We have been associated with the Rehabilitation Council of India (RCI) in bringing out a manual on barrier-free environments. The manual is due to be published in the next month or so. It will be used for training professionals through a three to five-day training programme. It details both internal and external environments such as roads, pathways, parking, reception, lifts, stairs and ramps. It also talks about other design considerations, covering doors and thresholds; circulation and space within buildings; floor finishes; placement of guiding and warning blocks; information boards and signage and colour contrast. This has been prepared in accordance with internationally accepted standards. We hope it will become a must have reference guide for architects, town planners and engineers across India.

Do you feel it is more important for particular groups of society to have access? If so which groups? (Prioritising places of access for example, schools, bus stations, public places, toilets, etc.)

We cannot prioritise on any one section or society or place in particular. The need for access is everywhere. For disabled people education and employment depend on access. People with disabilities cannot earn their living unless they have access to places of employment and public places. Access means everything. So places of work should also be barrier free.

Does your organisation operate outside Delhi?

Yes, we work in collaboration with other cross-disability organisations in the country on accessibility and other issues.

What are your plans for the future?

At present we are working with Sulabh International to make public toilets disabled friendly. But that's not all. We plan to undertake similar barrier-free access at other sites. The concept of accessibility remaining an urban phenomenon when a large number of people in the villages continued to live in unfriendly surroundings is also a cause for concern. We would like to venture into rural areas.

Such small but sure steps could go a long way in the making of a barrier-free world.

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