In-between the unbearable Delhi summer, today was a bit better, when the expected day temperature was supposed to be not higher than 41 degrees Celsius. Therefore, I decided to go and do an access audit of some so called accessible pedestrian infrastructure, that is being replicated all around Delhi. I left home on my motorized wheelchair at about 8 am to be back home after the audit by 10:00am before the sun became too hot. I was accompanied by Ritu my carer, who was going to help me measure and take photographs.
It was not easy to undertake this external audit in the heat. The sun was already scorching. Ritu and I tried to do our work as quickly as possible at the same time insuring that we do not miss anything so that we wouldn’t need to return. In all the concentration of work my handbag that had my wallet and house keys was stolen from me. I didn’t realize this till we finished our work. It would have been very easy for the thief as all my attention was on the audit.
Panicked I came home as I would now need to have the entrance lock broken and all my cards blocked. In between all the confusion I called the police by using the number ‘100’. My complain was immediately answered to and the lady told me that she will be now forwarding my complain to my regional police station who would then contact me. I was impressed by the promptness by which my call was answered.
I received a call from my regional station within half an hour. They told me that I would need to go to the regional police station physically and lodge a written complain. I explained to them that I was a wheelchair user, who lived alone and neither did I have a car nor was the public transport system accessible to me, hence I could not come to the station physically. I asked the constable if there was another option. He informed me that they would begin their investigation only if I went to the police station and gave them a written complain. I was a bit annoyed by now and asked him straight if nothing can be done especially since there was no way I could come to the police station. He reluctantly told me that they would come to my house in that case.
I was happy that they could understand my problem and would take action. Just then I received another call. There was someone more senior from the police department on the phone this time as the voice was more commanding. This person told me to send someone with a complain application to the station and get a FIR as without that there was nothing that they could do. The final verdict was that either I rushed to the station now to get investigation started or just forget about my handbag. Of course going to the station was not possible so I had no option but to forget about my handbag.
The issue here is not of my losing my handbag, but the inaccessibility for me as a disabled person to the police services. This is a situation that disabled and elderly people are bound to face more often. Today the question was only of my handbag but tomorrow it may be something more severe, but even tomorrow having access to the police service will be impossible.
The question is what does the police service has in place in terms of procedures to ensure that they are able to serve more vulnerable groups of people such as the disabled and the elderly who may have some special needs. Is it reasonable to say that ‘this is our procedure and sorry we cannot help you unless you follow our procedure no matter what your problems may be?’
Today in India there is a lot of talk about accessibility, but in our narrow understanding all we look at is physical accessibility. I do not doubt that the police station will be physically accessible with the required ramps etc., but how good is that to someone like me who is unable to go till the station in the first place. Tomorrow if there are people with sensory impairments who want to make a complain, does the police department have forms and information in alternate format that can be understood by vision impaired person? Do they have sign language interpreters, even if they are available on call bases, who can assist in lodging complains of hearing impaired persons? Can the information provided by them in their website be read by all?
Here I am talking about something as basic a lodging a complain with the police, which is just the tip of the ice berg and that probably for most is a considerably easy task, but for some of us is impossible. Today it is impossible for someone like me to access these basic services, then where are my rights as a citizen?
I know there is a long ay we need to go, but I write this today to focus attention o the fact that accessibility is far more than just physical access. Accessibility is not only about reaching a building and being able to negotiate within the building, but it is more about how one is able to use services and facilities provided within.