Thursday, December 4, 2008

Being a part of something bigger than yourself

 World Disability Day, Delhi, 2008. There was a Dharna called for at the India Gate with three main demands.

-          Each Ministry to have a clear cut plan on disability

-          Each Ministry to allocate 3% resources on disability issues as mandated in the XIth plan

-          Government to set up a separate Ministry for Disability

I have been disabled for the last 16 years. I have been working in the disability sector for the last 12 years with a complete urban experience only. I participated in the Dharna half heartedly. At the back of my mind there were apprehensions and unwillingness to be a part of such an activity.

I reached there with my colleagues and friends. We purposefully went an hour late as I thought no one will be there on time anyways. By the time we reached there the venue was packed up with over 10,000 people. I had never seen such a large crowd of people and let alone disabled people. There were people from all states of India – disabled people; grassroots workers; friends and family of disabled people. They all had one cry ‘Viklang Ekta Zinda Baad’ (Hail to disabled unity!)

I was completely shaken by the fact that there were these groups of disabled people who had traveled from small villages to Delhi to demand their basic rights. People from southern states wore short lungis that was no protection against the unforgiving Delhi cold. Many of them did not even have a sweater. There were crawlers who must have traveled all the way from their village in our shoddy inaccessible trains. But this seemed insignificant as against their conviction to get their rights. They were all ready to sit through the night in this open venue if required. 

When I compared myself, as so called role model (having received several awards), I felt absolutely worthless and uncommitted to a cause I have been working for all these 12 years. My concerns of poor standards and understanding of Inclusion seemed so trivial in front of their basic demands.

I am humbled by the spirit of all these people and salute their conviction. Each one of them was a true inspiration and a role model to me.

Monday, December 1, 2008

My first voting experience

Delhi had the assembly polls on November 28, 2008. I had been reading in the news papers that all polling booths were now accessible to people with disabilities. By accessibility they meant that the booths now had a step free access and Braille ballot paper.

 I was happy about the elections because I got a holiday, I was blissfully basking in the sun, till a friend of mine pushed me to go and vote. I tried to get out of it by saying that I did not have a Voters ID card, which he told me was not required and other ID’s were being accepted too.

 Since I knew the booth will be accessible, I agreed to go. I drove on my electric wheelchair till the booth which was about a kilometer away from my home. It was stationed at a Public School. On reaching I realized that only the wicket gate was open which had a bottom rod over which my electric wheelchair would not go. Then after the gate hurdle the route to the room where I was supposed to cast my vote had two steps.

 The Delhi Police who were manning the booth were happy to lift me through these hurdles, as they generally had being doing till now. What they failed to realize was that an electric wheelchair with me on it weighed over 200 Kgs. Once I explained this to them they of course were not willing any longer.

 After a long wait outside the gate a school gardener offered to assist me to get my ballot room. It was like an all terrain ride where I tested my wheelchair driving skills to the limit. Casting a vote that was a simple 5 minutes task for all turned out to be an hour long action packed activity for me, with times where my chair nearly toppled over, while driving over wooden planks that the gardener brought out from the store and spontaneously created temporary slopes for me.

 I casted my vote because by now I was determined to, but the two main issues that come out are:- 

  1. The claims of accessibility by the Election Commission are as vague as their understanding of accessibility in the first place. Just for example while it is a positive step that they provided Braille ballot paper for persons with vision impairments, but this was done without their understanding of the fact that a only a small percentage of people with vision impairments can read Braille. They could have considered using large print and colour contrast or even embossing.
  2. We talk about Inclusive Education by 2010 and zero rejection policy by schools, then looking at the school where my polling booth was stationed; it seems like a unachievable target.

 My Verdict

The Government implements schemes and policies such as accessible polling booths, inclusive education, etc without having any analysis of the needs of the intended target group. No wonder they will never be able to evaluate whether having Braille ballots actually helped voters with vision impairments or how to further improve the accessibility of the election procedure for disabled voters. Also while they have 2010 as the magical year by when inclusive education will be a reality, they have no accessibility standards that schools need to comply to. Additionally, the Government’s concept of inclusion is very outdated. They seek advice on inclusion from un-qualified people working for philanthropy in the disability sector.

Disability has to be looked at as a developmental issue rather than a social issue, with appropriate funds and professionalism ingrained into it. After all for building a flyover one will consult an engineer and not a mason, why then when it comes to disability inclusion issues suddenly qualifications and professionalism are not needed and sub standard services provided to the disabled acceptable? 

Monday, November 24, 2008

To the Airline Giants in India

The Director General Civil Aviation (DGCA) issued a landmark policy on the ‘Carriage of Persons with Disabilities’ in May this year. This is a landmark initiative not only because neither the Railways nor the Ministry of Shipping, Road Transport and Highways have any such recognition of travelers with Disabilities but also because this Civil Aviation Requirement (CAR) was, for the first time in any government regulations’ history, compiled following inputs from Disabled Peoples Organizations (DPO’s) and extensive public consultation. Though it’s not entirely pro disabled flyers, yet this considerably progressive policy is perceived as a step forward by the Indian government to affirm its commitment to truly embracing the diversity amongst travelers.

The famous Rajiv Rajan case of June 2007, that was filed in the Chennai High Court following Air Sahara refusing boarding to Rajiv on the pretext that he was unescorted and did not carry a ’Fit to Fly Certificate’ was discharged from the court on the pretext that the new CAR (Section 3 – Air Transport, Series ‘M’ Part I Sub: - Carriage by Air of Persons with Disability and/ or Persons with Reduced Mobility) has been issued to ensure that any such cases in the future can be rightly addressed. It has been over six months since this CAR was implemented, but if one evaluates the ground reality nothing much has changed and disabled travelers continue to live on the mercy of generally non-compliant airlines and their ill informed customer interaction staff.

 What does the CAR say?

 AIRLINE Responsibilities (to list a few)

 1.      Cannot refuse to carry unescorted persons with disabilities, even if they do not have a disability certificate.

2.      People with disabilities are not required to produce any medical certificate nor sign any indemnity forms before flying.

3.      Airlines must provide all necessary assistance to a passenger with disabilities who may want to travel alone.

4.      Airline staff assigned to handling disabled passengers e.g cabin crew/commercial staff MUST be trained in:

a.       Disability Awareness

b.      Assisting persons with reduced mobility (during embarkation)

c.       Assisting unaccompanied passengers with disabilities (in-flight)

5.      The airlines must provide for boarding devices such as ambulifts and aisle chairs. The use of the ambulift is free for passengers with a disability certificate.

6.      In-flight availability of information in alternate formats such as Braille, Large print etc

7.      All airlines need to formulate and publish (including on their website) detailed procedures for the carriage of disabled passengers.

 Ground Reality

 Today when it is possible to fly from Delhi to Mumbai in about Rs 4,000/-, people with reduced mobility especially those who are unable to climb the steps leading to the aircraft need to pay about Rs 1,685/- at each airport for the use of an ambulift. This almost doubles the fare for a person with reduced mobility vis-à-vis a non disabled person. Although the DGCA regulation entrusts the responsibility and bills for the required equipment onto the airline, unfortunately this doesn’t necessarily work as promised in a country where manual labor comes cheaper than equipment, and easy for heavy weight airline lobby to flout the law. On an everyday basis the airlines generally prefer to keep disabled travelers in the dark and rather than giving them the choice of an ambulift to board with dignity, they prefer to carry them up stars leading to the aircraft door instead by 4 porters.

 Not all airlines/crafts have aisle chairs to assist disabled passengers to get to their seat. People with disabilities are carried physically in disrespectful manner to their seats. Since a disabled passenger is last to be boarded out there have been instances where at the night halting station, they have had to wait for over the total flying time for assistance to reach to help them board out of the flight.  More often than not a disabled person is expected to continue sitting precariously on a narrow and un-maintained aisle chair till the luggage claming area as the airline staff is just too lazy to get the passenger wheelchair from hold till the door of the aircraft that they are supposed to do.

 Websites of all Indian operators have far from adequate information available on ‘Carriage of Disabled Passengers’ as required by the CAR. This non provision of information seems a reflection of the ambiguous and unclear policies that the airline towards this. The uncertainty or the non compliance to the ‘Civil Aviation Requirement – Carriage of Disabled Persons’ in the management level permeates down well till the loading staff as none of them is confident about their responsibilities towards a disabled passenger.

 Examples of information that is available on some Low Cost Domestic airline websites :

  • Go Air - In spite of the CAR denying the requirement of a medical certificate, GoAir requires a Medical Fitness Certificate  ‘Fit to Fly as a Passenger’.
  • IndiGo reserves the right to deny these special services if not requested in advance. Where as the CAR puts the onouce on the airlines for getting adequate information from the passenger at the time of booking, therefore the right to deny services does not apply.
  • Spice Jet and Jetlite have some very scanty information given out of a passenger with special needs.

  It seems that the airlines purposefully do not provide all information on their site as is required by the recent CAR, as providing information on the website will make their faulty policies and procedures transparent to public scrutiny. If it becomes so then demanding Rs. 1685/- extra from disabled passengers just to be able to board the craft with dignity will no longer be possible.


 Air travel presently is an extremely stressful activity for a disabled flyer. Passengers with disabilities are always at the mercy of the untrained staff to make their journey a bit better. Disabled passengers pay the same amount as any other passenger but the services provided to them are always substandard as compared to their non co passengers. This has been recognized to be so by the Government hence the issuing of the CAR. In spite of this there has been no improvement on the carriage of a disabled passenger. It is yet another classic example of non implementation of a Government policy. The only way that seem to be left to ensuring improvement is for people with disabilities, knowing about their rights as a flyer and demand to be treated respectfully each time. Finally, unless the Government is able to stand up to the strong air operators lobby, there can be no improvements that a disabled flyer can expect. 

Friday, October 31, 2008

Is Delhi ready to accommodate disabled visitors during the Commonwealth Games?

As the clock is ticking for the Commonwealth Games, Delhi is seemingly gearing up fast, The government is spending $37.5 b into Delhi to make it ready for 2010 Commonwealth Games.  There is tremendous spur in infrastructure development to meet the deadlines.

 There will be an expected inflow of 50,000 foreign visitors during this time requiring 30,000 hotel rooms to accommodate them as per Jones Lang LaSalle Hotels (JLLH), global hotel investment service firm. With less than 2 years left for the event there are presently only about 11000 rooms available with an obviously huge dearth of available accommodation. In this crunch there is neither a talk about accommodation for visitors with disabilities nor any concrete efforts are being made in this direction. If the Government was to take a count of rooms that are accessible for disabled visitors, the numbers will not be more than 80 considering that only 4 star and 5 star hotels need to be accessible.

Regulation for Accessible accommodation

The Ministry of Tourism has a voluntary scheme for classification of fully operational hotels in categories. These classifications are made so as to equip Indian tourism sector to meet international standards. The 4 star, 5 star and 5 star Deluxe hotels have some basic accessibility requirements they need to comply with in order to get the star rating from Ministry. A brief of these requirements is as follows:

a) Classification Checklist





5*/5* D


Accessible Lifts for buildings higher than G + 2






Public Areas

Accessible Public Restrooms






Ramps with anti-slip floors and handrails at the entrance.

Minimum door width should be 32" to allow wheelchair access and other facilities for the physically challenged

Wheelchair access with suitable table in at least one Restaurant.

Facilities for Aurally/ Visually handicapped

Safety & Security

Visual & Audible Fire and Emergency alarms.






Earmarked Accessible Parking Facilities






(N = necessary; D = desirable; * = star)

Through these classifications the Ministry of Tourism require all new hotel projects to adopt facilities for physically challenged persons, since 31st December 2003 the ministry mandated all existing 4*, 5* and 5*D hotels to add facilities for physically challenged persons.

The Ground Situation

As per the Ministry of Tourism’s ‘Hotel Classification System’ all 4 star, 5 star and 5 star deluxe hotels should have incorporated accessibility by January 1, 2004. Based on a research conducted by AccessAbility, a leading Universal design consulting firm in Delhi which also makes travel guides for tourists with disabilities, in 2008 shows the reality far from being so.

The research was conducted on 15 hotels in Delhi. The breakup included eleven 5 star hotels and four 4 star hotels. The study evaluated these hotels based on requirements of a wheelchair user.

While according to the criteria for the stars awarded by the Ministry of Tourism all these should have been accessible to guests with disabilities, the ground reality reveals that only:

·        33% hotels had a guest room that could be used by a guest on a wheelchair user.

·        7% had accessible public restrooms

·        73% had at least one restaurant that was accessible.

·        Out of the four 4 star hotels that were reviewed, a glaring 50% of them had absolutely no provisions for guests with disabilities.

Major Drawbacks Noticed

 Considering that all 4 and 5 star hotels should have been accessible by 1st January 2004 but almost five years later the reality remains bleak. Some of the major drawbacks that have emerged are as follows:


1.      Ambiguous and inadequate accessibility requirements in the present Hotel Classification System - Considering that design layout for disabled must meet some minimum space requirements, the lack of these specifications in the rating criteria opens the doors for subjective interpretation by hoteliers thereby resulting in the ‘facilities for physically challenged’ guests that are actually unusable by the very client group these facilities are supposed to cater. Also the Hotel Classification System does not include fitness and entertainment areas that are bundled into the room tariff. Additionally these classifications do not adequately address needs of people with sensory impairments.


2.      Lack of accessible budget hotels – Presently the accessibility requirement of the Hotel Classification system apply only to the 4 star and 5 star hotels. Accessibility is not a requirement that budget hotels need to fulfill, forcing the majority of disabled travelers to spend their entire savings on luxury hotels.


3.      Poor enforcement by the Ministry – The evaluation and auditing committee deputed by the Ministry deputes for checking against the said classification before a hotel gets its star rating have no knowledge of accessibility for people with disabilities and hence are unable to check the disabled friendliness of the various hotels.


4.      The exemption mechanism not specified – There may be instances where the existing structural limitations, especially in heritage hotels, make it difficult to cater to the needs of persons with disabilities. There is no exemption mechanism specified by which hoteliers may apply for to get a waver in such instances.


 With the upcoming Commonwealth Games, it is not only will the requirement for regular accommodation that will multiply, but also the need for accessible accommodation will increase many fold. While people are aware and working towards filling the regular accommodation shortfall, there is no awareness or concern about accessible accommodation for visitors with disabilities. Today Delhi may boast of merely 80 hotel rooms that are supposedly accessible (based on their star ratings) to disabled travelers and that too only in the 4 star and 5 star categories.

 While the Ministry is planning to revise the Hotel Classification requirements but it is not clear yet if they will strengthen the accessibility component of this classification. Even if they do consider strengthning it – the time may not be enough for the industry, especially the budget hotels, to gear up the increased demand of accessible accommodation.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

My Experience of playing Quad (Quadriplegic) Rugby

I can be best described as a couch potato – someone who is always sitting down, lazy and looking at others to help me with smallest of tasks like getting a glass of water. I got to know of Quad Rugby being played at ISIC (Indian Spinal Injuries Centre), and just out of curiosity I went to meet the lady who had got it to India. Being a business woman the thought – lets see how this person can benefit my work was the main driving force to meet her.

I met this petite middle aged American lady, Vikky who is on a mission of reaching out to SCI Quads in India through sports. She is on this mission along with her son Jon, who met with a spinal injury in Mussoorie. She can across to me as a very grounded and a simple person and while I was wondering how she plans to achieve her aim in India without any major pulls and connections, she showed me an amateur film of quads playing Rugby at ISIC. It was an interesting film with some familiar faces. It seemed like fun.

She asked me to join the team and told me that they had practice on Mondays and Thursdays, but some where I was hoping she would tell me that I was overage to be a part of the sport. I thought it may be a good idea to come once or twice and witness the game especially because it may help be reconnect with old colleagues at ISIC where I have worked for six years. So with that thought I retuned from meeting Vikky on Saturday.

Along came Monday. The couch potato in me was really thrilled that another meeting cropped up at 3:30 pm, just one hour before Rugby practice. The meeting got over at 5:00pm. I was happy to say that I shall go for Rugby practice on Thursday now. But it wasn’t going to be so easy this time. Vikas who was accompanying me for the meeting hijacked me and drove me straight to ISIC and had me out of the car and in the Rugby practice within 15 minutes.

I took solace in the fact that today I need not play since I was 45 minutes late. Coach Rajeev too asked me to be a spectator. I was happy, but happiness was really short lived. Along cane Vikky excited to see me there. Within seconds she had me transferred on to a special chair, with gloves and all sort of safety straps. I was dressed and ready for the practice. The first realization was, that I need to wheel myself, while I am used to and happy being pushed around. Reluctantly I wheeled and joined the practice.

As I played I found myself enjoying it. What excited me was that most players were as bad as me being quads themselves. There was no judging or competition to prove that you were great at it. After practice we divided ourselves in two groups to play a game.

The game was real fun because one of the main tactics was to block the other player by jamming his wheelchair with yours. It was a bit like bumper cars and a hefty person like me proved to be good at it. What is more is that I managed to make a goal too. What was best was being a part of a team where the weakest player was also as important. The beauty of the game is that it is tailor made for quads who may not be able to participate in too may games.

To sum up the whole experience I am so glad that I joined the Rugby practice. Personally for me the experience was like finding a dress that fitted me just fine which is one of the most difficult task for an overweight person like me. Now Momndays and Thurdays are days I look forawrd to.

Wednesday, January 9, 2008

The PwD Act and accessibility in India

As per the recent Disability Report by the World Bank approximately 6-8% of our population conprises of persons with disability. The Persons with Disability (Equal Opportunity, Protection of Rights and Full Participation) Act 1995, apart from other things, provides rights to the disabled to have access public buildings, pedestrian environment and public trasportation.

What mention does Access have in the Act

Chapter V - Education
Governments to provide free education to disabled children till they attain the age of 18 years.

Section 30 of his Chapter says provisions will be made to:
o Transport facilities to the children with disabilities or in the alternative financial incentives to parents or guardians to enable their children with disabilities to attend schools.
o The removal of architectural barriers from schools. colleges or other institution, imparting vocational and professional training;

Chapter VI - Employment
Sub Section 1(d) of Section 38 talks about

“Health and safety measures and creation of a non-handicapping environment in places where persons with disabilities are employed.”

Chapter VIII - Non Discrimination
This chapter focuses on non-discrimination towards persons with disabilities in various areas. This is the Chapter that covers access issues at large. In sections 44 to 46, it coves issues pertaining to
  • accessibility to public transport including buss, trains and air travel
  • Accessinility in pedistrian environment with mention of curb cuts, engraving on the surface of the zebra crossing, engraving on the edges of railway platforms, and warning signals at appropriate places.
  • Access to public buidings by providing ramps, Braille symbols and auditory signals in elevators or lifts;

Lacune of the Act

  • Accessibility is not provided as a matter of right but as a add on based on the economic capacity of the provider. (“…within the limits of their economic capacity & development…”)
  • It is discriminatory in itself as it applies only to the government & public sector. The Act does not even apply to all public use buildings such as theatres, restaurants etc.
  • The terms Accessibility, non discrimination or even Public Building have not been defined in the Act.
  • There are no designated accessibility standards, leaving all to have their own personal criteria.
  • The specific guidance on accessibility in the non discrimination section narrows down the focus to only certain aspects of physical accessibility. It fails to consider access to services and information
  • Lack of any phases and timeframes & extremely poor recourse mechanism
  • There are no measurables to chart the progress or the direction being taken
  • It fails to give direction for polices and regulations that are drafted by other ministries.

Some Recommendations

  1. Accessibility has to be a matter of right and not linked to any issuse such as .....economic capacity
  2. The Act must provide clear defination of Non Discrimination, Accessibility and public buildings
  3. The Act must include access to information and communication
  4. Inclusion of PwD must be crucial to any public spending
  5. The Act must give fixed timeframes and a layed out procedure for monitoring
  6. Punitive action to be taken for non compliance
  7. National Accessibility Standards to be drafted and made applicable all over the country

My wheelchair is not my identity

I became disabled person when I was 22 years old in a car accident. There was a very marked change in people’s behaviour towards me, and o...