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India lacks healthy environment for the disabled, it remains a social stigma

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Wheelchair basketball event

New Delhi: Two years ago, I was in Mohali Stadium, attending an All-India level competition of Wheelchair basketball. Madhavi Latha Prathigudupu, founder and president of the Wheelchair Basketball Federation of India was organising the competition. She moved swiftly on her electric wheelchair around the Stadium to complete last-minute hitches as the sports minister was reaching to witness the final game and distribute prizes.

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For the last few years (except two years of the Pandemic), I have been attending the Wheelchair Basketball games, which have now entered into a prestigious annual competition and in several States of the country, both men's and women's teams participate.

The enthusiasm in the basketball players in their wheelchairs and their family members is always electric, on crescendo, and full of stamina, with players and their caretakers forgetting their shortcomings. I cannot even describe the happiness players feel when proudly competing with the other teams on the court.

Stories of challenges

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After the game, I interacted with some participants and organizers. I was shocked to hear stories of challenges they were facing in the hotels where they were staying, the buses they were travelling and access to the bathrooms in the Stadium, hotels.

Beyond games, the challenge they were facing in society, in schools, colleges, on roadsides and even in some offices. Still, they did not complain. I made it to my mind to write an article, but my apologies, even though I am guilty of writing this article after two years.

Let me introduce you to my first guest, Madhavi Latha Prathigudupu. She cannot walk and is more or less paralyzed from her shoulders downward, but she is a frequent traveller. Madhavi is a sports lover, a former national Para Swimming Champion, a banker, an actor and an author. She is a TEDx speaker and was also part of the Rajiv Gandhi Khel Ratna and Arjuna awards selection committee in 2017.

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She lives in Chennai and makes it her religion to create awareness among the population about the challenges that more than 30 million disabled persons face in India least caring for her social stigma and the challenges she faces every day.

Madhavi feels a lot more has to be done in India to make the lives of persons with disabilities comfortable. From the time they get up till the time they go to bed is a challenge. Something as simple as walking or jogging that fits into our daily routine is powerlessness for the physically disabled person.

Madhavi narrated how difficult it was for her to search for a disabled-friendly apartment in a housing complex with a swimming pool in Chennai. Finally, when she found it, which was to some extent accessible with lifts and a swimming pool, it still needed some friendly changes. With the help and support of her apartment owners' Association, she was able to get some steps/barriers removed for her wheelchair to reach common places in the building.

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Madhavi is a keen swimmer, but it was difficult for her to come out of the swimming pool without the support of someone. She put her efforts to make her Apartment Owners' association understand about the availability of the pool lift facility and the need for it in their complex.

It took her a while to convince her apartment owners' association, to give permission to install a pool lift at her own cost and responsibility. Madhavi feels the requirements of disabled and elderly people are ignored fully while constructing these apartment complexes despite having supportive legal provisions.

Madhvi explains that most people are not like her to pursue the issue, and finally, their dreams to achieve something unique fail after facing challenges and no support from the majority of society.

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Inclusion in society is negligible

One of the main complaints from disabled and older adults in India is that their houses or apartments are not disabled people-friendly. Even the community parks have steps and barriers to keep stray dogs and animals away but hardly neighbours consider those who are disabled, infirm or old. Many disabled people, or old people because of the hurdles, hardly come out of their houses.

Equally, many who travel on public transport and reach offices, colleges, and schools feel the same way that public transport buses, and taxis are not disabled-friendly. Some of the buses do have the facility but drivers or conductors hardly use it as the buses are always overloaded. Space for wheelchairs is just to hoodwink law but practically non-functional. Last-mile access or entering the buildings or using the footpath is like climbing Mount Everest for the disabled.

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A cursory survey of the buildings suggests that even many new buildings and their builders/promoters are not taking care of this aspect. As a result, common amenities like community halls, swimming pools, malls, gyms, parks etc., are not accessible for persons with disabilities and older people. They are violating the law but are not accountable.

Madhvi and residents like her say challenges are enormous, and authorities must support and implement the law. For example, the National Building Code and controls that permit building construction must strictly ask the builders to follow the law. They need to ensure the importance of accessibility and the need for universal designs to create barrier-free built environments for persons with disabilities and older people.

The need of the hour is to create awareness among all the stakeholders with regard to Housing Complexes (concerned Govt Dept/Builders/Associations) to understand the difficulties of people with disabilities and older adults to have standard amenities accessible and help promote inclusion in society.

Above are just a few examples. The fact remains that our footpaths, entrance to any building, cinema halls, religious places, and even many legal courts do not have barrier-free access despite clear-cut instructions by the Supreme Court and the law of the land.

What needs to be done

First and foremost is to change in the perception and attitude of the people, for which massive awareness amongst the masses plays a critical role.

Ordinary people walking and using familiar places are not sensitive to the difficulties the disabled feel. Society needs to understand their rights and discipline those discriminating against the disabled and older adults.

A comprehensive guideline needs to be issued to the architects, builders and Resident Welfare Associations to make the residential complexes/buildings slowly but surely disable friendly.

All building sanctions and approval should be accorded only if the building plan strictly adheres to the accessibility standards of the National Building Code and harmonized guidelines and space standards for a barrier-free built environment.

There needs to be a mechanism and audit to ensure that the owners' associations maintain these guidelines after they take over the buildings.

For existing infrastructure and properties that are built before guidelines, there needs to be an audit performed for accessibility followed by the provision of recommendations and subsequent enforcement.

Many assistive devices are available in the market to make the places accessible with a reasonable expenditure, like ramps, rails, staircase chair lifts, swimming pool lifts etc. Many a time, it won't be expensive to make these places accessible.

Make sure parking spaces for people with disabilities are accessible outside the building. Walkways don’t have step but wheelchair-friendly inclinations. Avoid putting steps within a floor in a building, where possible, so that rooms have direct access to Corridors and doors. Waiting rooms should have particular space and access for wheelchairs.

The National Disability Authority's Guidelines for Access Auditing of the Built Environment is very much present but who is following those guidelines? Those not following are already doing an unlawful activity. The authorities need to be aware of them and still if they don’t follow the law, make them accountable.

Creating Awareness

Training programs, advertisement campaigns, and awareness camps are needed.

In schools, the first learning steps should make children understand the needs of the disabled. People in all spheres of life must be aware and sensitized over this issue. Teachers need to provide training so that disabled children do not feel ignored or targeted by other children in school. In India, disability is still not inclusive enough and remains a stigma. Hardly classrooms are disable friendly.

Let us vouch to create a healthy environment for the disabled and old people. These friendly accessibility areas are also child proof and chances of accidents, and falls do get reduced. The country's latest statistics show that an estimated 2.1 per cent of the Indian population has a disability, a figure of over 28 million people. Around 10 percent population are above the age of 75. A person can face disability, intellectually and physically, including old age people, at any point in their life from medical complications or life-altering events. They all don’t need sympathy but they look forward to change of attitude and perception of society and surroundings.

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