Friday, October 15, 2010

The Disabled up on sale

It was 9th October 2010 when TOI Mumbai had a published a news in the front page
“Wed a Disabled Person, Get Rs 50,000/- from the State” (source :

Most people I know were appalled to hear this. Just the basic ideology behind the scheme sounds nauseating. I for one thought this was the most humiliating news as a disabled person. The thought of paying someone to marry me!!!!!!!! I can go on expressing my distress about this scheme.

While I, along with may other thought it to be ridiculous but alongside there was a thought that disabled people from under privileged economic backgrounds may benefit from this especially because Rs 50,000/- is a large sum of money for them. I have never worked with disabled people from poor background, so was forced to rethink my stand regarding the scheme.

Now that I am thinking there are various other issues that are coming to my mind confusing me further. I am stating my confusions below hoping to have a discussion and get various view points:

1. Today the disability movement is demanding for a rights based society where a disabled person has equal rights and equal access to exercise those rights. At least, that was my understanding from all the advocacy happening for amending the existing PWD Act, so if that is the case than why is charity so acceptable.
2. All of us – if I may say, more vocal people with disabilities condemn the thought of charity because it hurts our self esteem as human beings then why does the same charity in the case of marriage seem alright for a disadvantages disabled person. Is he/she not a person first before happening to be disabled like any of us?
3. Probably only 5% of my friends with disabilities are married in spite of their being economically stable mostly because non marriage of disabled people is a social issue so is it fair that the government only encourages or addresses this issue only amongst people below a certain income group? And that to by hanging a carrot of monetary incentive.
4. Does the government have systems to evaluate the scheme especially to ensure it is not being misused and doing more harm than good that it intends to do?
5. I have come to understand that Rs.50,000/- is sometimes more that a poor persons life long savings. So what is clear is that it is a large sum. If so then why just because someone is disabled should they receive such a large sum as a grant to just either save or spend away? Will this he sum be not better utilized in make the disabled person more self sufficient probably by running a small business etc.
6. Similar schemes are already running to encourage marriage with a ST/SC. If that is the route taken to include the ST/SC then why is it so automatically though right to adopt for the disabled, just because both groups have been marginalized or is it because it’s easier to demand alms on that pretext? Aren’t the needs of a disabled person unique and different from a non disabled person even if they happen to belong to ST/SC category?

Well I think my contention is not as much as the government giving 50k to disabled people as much as it is about giving it on the pretext of marriage. But with the small reaction I have seem in general about this scheme, I realize the double standards we the disabled people live with. The very same issues and thoughts that seems wrong and unacceptable to us as individuals are acceptable or even good for a disadvantaged person – why just because they will get some free money???

As I said I am confused. I admit I am ignorant about life of under privileged disabled people and I may be entirely wrong in my discussion, but I would really appreciate view points to understand better.


Tuesday, October 5, 2010

An open letter to Hon’ble Minister of State, MSJE, Shri Mukul Wasnik

October 2, 2010

Shri Mukul Wasnik
Minister of Social Justice and Empowerment
Government of India
Shastri Bhawan,
Dr. Rajendra Prasad Road,
New Delhi - 110001

Hon’ble Shri. Wasnikji,

I am writing to you in reference to the formation of the newly formed taskforce for the Proposed National Centre for Universal Design & Barrier Free Environments.

I was invited to express my views by the Committee set up for drafting the ‘NEW DISABILITY ACT’, as a representative of the civil society. The meeting started very well, with all committee members pledging their commitment to including people with disabilities in the complete process. There were of course discontentment from people, but being the person I am, I appreciated both sides of the argument and had little to add besides about accessibility.

Accessibility is my subject so I was happy it was the first to be discussed. The legal consultant appreciated the richness of the document developed by the Sub group, who had unofficially consulted me extensively as an external expert for the draft. I am passionate about accessibility and am acutely aware of my role as the only disabled professional in the subject, and was happy to give the draft document shape and direction, without any vested interest, name or recognition. I was satisfied with our discussions, as I believed that we had included a majority of what we want to say. I somewhere take it as a moral responsibility to ensure that people with disabilities get mainstreamed.
The next session was on HRD. A senior government official commented that there should be professional education, namely, post graduate and above, available to disabled people. I was thrilled to hear this. I was reminded of the time, when as a disabled person, I needed to go abroad to do my post graduation in ‘Inclusive Environments,’ – another term for ‘Universal Design’, and I spent lakhs of rupees and am still struggling to pay-off my education loan. This would have been a fantastic opportunity for aspirants like myself. I invested so much because I believed in the discipline and wanted to improve the lives of disabled people in India by bringing in professionalism and quality.

Soon after a ‘government notice’ was circulated telling us about the constitution of a ‘Task Force to work out the details of the Proposed National Centre for Universal Design & Barrier Free Environments.’ This came as an absolute surprise to me. I was angry, in fact furious, to see this note, at my exclusion from the task force. My CV had been invited during the process of deciding the members to be on board, but I wasn’t selected. I am no judge for who is on the committee, but would like to know which of the members had credentials that were better suited than mine. To me, the only thing each one of them had in common was an employment in different government departments. It’s ironical that this came during a government committee meeting that was harmonizing the Disability Act with the UNCRPD. I am beginning to believe that on ground, nothing is going to change, even if we drafted the best Act.

My confidence in your team is shattered. How am I supposed to believe in a team who proclaim to be working for the cause of the disabled people, but cannot acknowledge their capability, even when backed with professional education? They cannot accept the value that disabled “professional” experts can bring to the table, as they may be far more sensitized to the issues of the disabled people.

Till now I have never voiced the rejection that I have constantly felt from the Government in being part of the system. I cannot even count the many instances, but today just seemed like the last straw. What pierces my heart is such callous behaviour from the government. I find a complete apathy to the subject that is still so lacking in our country. I am disillusioned with all promises made. I am tired of giving out for free, the knowledge that I spent so much to gain. I do not see any hope, and wonder what the point of continuing is? It is meaningless to have any provisions or facilities accessible to us. Why should people with disabilities opt for higher studies and raise their aspirations - only to be broken! And if MSJE themselves cannot appreciate us, then who will?

I am a person who likes to work as part of the system, and would like to continue the same way, but today I find myself thrown out, and forced to challenge it and dismiss it. Not out of my own free will, but as a reaction to the decisions of your Ministry.

Sir, I urge you to create opportunities for fresh thought and professional approach to be included within your team to achieve the high goals that we have set out for ourselves, under your able guidance, in a truly democratic environment.

Yours sincerely,

Shivani Gupta
Mob: 9310245743

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Accessible Ladakh

After a long seven month break from work, I was looking forward to the project in Leh, to assist in the development of Leh and its surrounding areas as an inclusive travel destination. Leh, the capital of Ladakh, falls within the boundaries of Jammu & Kashmir. Areawise, it is the largest district in India, and is located at an altitude of 3500 m from sea level. It is commonly referred to as a cold desert.

All my friends warned me about altitude sickness and harsh weather conditions that I was bound to face there. I felt nervous on hearing stories of people returning back from the airport due to altitude sickness, but was still determined to go.

The project was commissioned by a social entrepreneurship ‘Travel Another India’ (TAI) in collaboration with a local NGO ‘People’s Action Group on Inclusion & Disability’ (PAGIR). TAI is working towards helping set up Responsible Rural Tourism Ventures and then link them up with travel agencies for marketing. TAI promotes Responsible Tourism with travellers and hosts by supporting communities to set up Responsible Tourism Ventures (RTV). They support on sensitising on Responsible Tourism, planning the experience, bringing in technical and financial resources, reaching out to guests, ensuring appropriate capacity building, facilitating learning across RTVs and identifying allied livelihoods that can be enhanced. For the Ladakh project TAI is working in collaboration with PAGIR, a rights movement working to create a society that is inclusive and free of prejudice. They do this by mobilizing people, campaigning on rights issues and accessing legal aid. Alongside, they also address livelihoods of disabled people.

Together TAI and PAGIR are working towards developing an inclusive travel circuit in Ladhak, that is accessible to people using wheelchairs. This is the first time in India that “inclusion” at travel destinations is being worked for professionally by organizations. Clearly, they considered it a profitable commercial venture rather than mere charity.

Leh can be accessed by road via Srinagar or Manali in the summers. This route is open for about five months in a year. Alternatively there are daily flights to Leh. I flew to Leh and was there for almost a week to visit and audit all tourist attractions in and around its vicinity, from April 12 to 18, 2010. While the actual tourist season begins only in May, there were already a large number of tourists who were attracted to Leh especially after seeing the breathtaking Pangong Lake in the recent movie ‘Three Idiots’.

The Leh Kushok Bakula Rimpochee Airport, is one of the highest airport in the world, and is managed by the Indian Army. Though quite like the Delhi airport, there was no ambulift available at the airport. The ground transport to and fro from the aircraft is provided by small buses that are completely inaccessible. The ground handling staff pushed my wheelchair all the way from the aircraft to the airport. The airport is step free with a couple of steep ramps in places. There is no accessible toilet as expected.

The local taxis that are available are high, four-wheel drive vehicles, ranging from Innova, Scorpio to a Sumo. Smaller cars may be good for traveling within Leh city, but to travel around Leh a larger vehicle is a must. Being a tetraplegic, getting in and out of the Innova was very difficult for me, probably more difficult than negotiating with the architectural inaccessibility of all monuments! My trip would not have been possible if it were not for the impeccable hospitality extended by PAGIR locally. All credit goes to Kunzang (Secretary, PAGIR) and Kunzes (Cordinator, Himalaya on Wheels) and the driver Ehzaaz who accompanied me everywhere and assisted me at every step.

Predominantly a Buddhist region, Ladakh is also known as the land of Gompas (monasteries). Every village has its own Gompa in a secluded area away from the village, generally on a hilltop. Most Gompas have a large number of steps, but some with fewer steps include the Alchi Gompa, Shey Gompa, and the Likir Chamba where the deity of Buddha (70 feet high) can be viewed from the road itself.

I was truly excited when I saw that the Archeological Survey of India (ASI) working towards making the Alchi Gompa accessible, as it is an11th century monastery. Besides being the oldest in Ladakh, it is soon to become a World Heritage Site. The work was on, and an engineer from ASI was on site supervising the work. Though the ramps that they were constructing were rather steep, but still it was wonderful to see that ASI’s policy of making monuments accessible is truly taking shape. Some expert advice before making the changes would help them further, and avoid undesirable flaws such as the steep ramps.

The natural beauty of Ladakh is incomparable. Being a wheelchair user, I tend to enjoy natural beauty as it is usually more accessible than man made monuments which are comparatively inaccessible. Leh’s natural beauty is so magnificent and overpowering, that it completely humbles you and spreads a sense of peace and calm. No wonder I survived so well, without mobile connectivity and without worrying about time comfortably for those six days. Each mountain in this dry land is of a different colour. Each view is such that you would want to photograph it. Two significant tourist locations are Khadungla pass, the world’s highest motorable road, and the Pangong Lake,a 134 km long lake extending from India to China. Being nature’s gifts, both these places are fully accessible, but unfortunately the man-made restrooms in both these places are inaccessible.

As a person who enjoys travel and adventure, I would love to return to Leh in spite of Ladakh not having a single accessible guest room that a wheelchair user can stay in or an accessible restroom for use. As an access consultant, I would have to say that there is a lot of work to be done before we can term Leh as an inclusive destination. Some major points of intervention, that would bring far reaching changes, are as follows:

1. The Jammu and Kashmir State building byelaws must adopt accessibility as a requirement, so that no new building can get a completion certificate unless it is fully accessible.
2. The Ministry of Tourism has very recently brought out Guidelines for Classification of Hotels that requires all hotels, 1 star to 5 star, to subscribe to accessibility ( It is important that local hotel associations too take these seriously.
3. Building the awareness of the local people in the area of accessibility is important.
4. Capacity building of local engineers and architects, especially working with the Government agencies such as ASI, PWD etc., on the subject of accessible environments is important.
5. There are a few villages in Ladakh that are being developed as model villages. Accessibility must be a criterion built into the development plans, as it would not only benefit the tourists, but also the sick and elderly in the village.

While accessibility is the key to the mainstreaming of people with disabilities, Ladakh is an untouched land when it comes to issues like accessibility for persons with disabilities. It is only due to organizations like ‘Travel Another India’ who are working towards creating an accessible travel circuit in Ladakh, that will bring initiate such a paradigm shift in the society with the local leadership and support of PAGIR. I wish them good luck and persevering strength to see this project through.

For further details on the travel packages, please contact Kunzang at or Gouthami at

For Pictures click on the following link :

Monday, June 14, 2010

Inaccessible Pedestrian Environment in Delhi

Inaccessible Pedestrian Environment in Delhi

Shivani Gupta
Director, AccessAbility

In the flurry of preparing Delhi for the upcoming Commonwealth Games, Delhi has been revamped. There is the new BRT Corridor, the low floor buses, huge overhead bridges, accessible pathways and the swanky metro. All of these have accessibility incorporated in them. I should feel fortunate being a wheelchair user that now public transport and the pedestrian environments is accessible to me. But the unfortunate reality is that none of these so called accessible facilities are really accessible to the disabled and hence have not brought the desired mobility. Money is being spent in the name of accessibility but what we have really got are ‘teasers’. ‘Teasers’ being my way of describing facilities that are signposted as being accessible but are not usable by disabled people in reality.

Usability is the first and the basic requirement of accessibility and it is here that all these fail. Usability goes beyond blindly putting on ground accessibility standards, it is about how a user will actually interface with the given service/facility/infrastructure etc. it may also vary based on the social context, therefore what may be a working design in a developed country may not be so in a developing country. To increase usability is also the crux of Universal Design.

Just yesterday I went out on my wheelchair and thought of crossing to the other side from the overhead foot bridges that have been built all over Delhi. The bridge is about seven meters high with a ramp 89 meters long of 1:12 gradient to get onto the bridge and the same ramp on the opposite side.

In India most people will say “arre there is a ramp na to get on and off the bridge and that to of 1:12 gradient, then what more do you want?” What they fail to see is that a wheelchair user will need to wheel two hundred meters, that too up and down a ramp to cross just a 10 meter wide road. So its 10 meters verses 200 meters.

Major Design Flaws:

• To provide a ramp to negotiate a level difference of more than 3 meters is impractical and not usable by the disabled and here it is more than double that height.
• A ramp to negotiate a level difference of more than 3 meters must have a gradient no more than 1:18 here the gradient is 1:12
• Landings must be provided after every five meters, here landing is provided after 40 meters.

I am sure even athletes using wheelchairs will find negotiating this ramp difficult!

Here I will also like to point out that accessible parking is demanded & provided closest to the entrance to ensure that disabled car drivers and passengers do not need to walk extra, but when it comes to pedestrian environments adding 200 meters to the journey is reasonable. Why this disparity?

A resent press release by the Delhi metro said that there ‘Delhi Metro provides wheel chair facility to old and physically challenged commuters at all Metro stations. On an average, 149 physically challenged people and 78 blind commuters use the Metro system daily’ and ‘On an average, it is carrying about 800,000 commuters everyday.’ Just taking the figures published by them it is easy to calculate that there are only 0.02% people with disabilities who use this so called ‘accessible transport system’ to travel.

The pavements in Delhi are been refurbished and most with tactile guidance and ramps at the beginning and end. The amazing part is that the guidance breaks whenever there is an obstacle in the path like trees, poles etc., hence ensuring people with blindness bang into them and majority of the ramps are blocked by bollards, through which a wheelchair cannot pass.

I wonder when will people with disabilities stop compromising and accepting shoddy solutions to improve access. The UNCRPD talks about ‘Persons with disabilities to have access, on an equal basis with others’ its time we demanded it.

Monday, May 31, 2010

Poor Access to the Services of the Police

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.

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...