US-based industrial designer Patricia Moore was 26 when she disguised herself as 80-year-old, with padded joints, latex wrinkles and a cane. She travelled across the US and Canada, to more than 100 cities, crossing streets, walking into supermarkets and trying simple activities, like opening doors in public places. This was 1978. She concluded that our cities and homes were ill-equipped for those who were differently abled. Called a pioneer of universal design, which does not exclude anyone based on age or capacity, Moore would conduct workshops for architects, where she would tell them: “Shut your eyes and imagine you’ve reached your driveway in your car and you’re entering your home. Except that you are in a wheelchair. Think of your whole day from a seated position, from the doors to the lights to the kitchen.” It was her way of bringing to the table the inefficiencies of design. She helped write the Americans with Disabilities Act in 1990.
Last month, the Bombay High Court ordered the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation to inspect 15 establishments in the city for their accessibility to the differently-abled. Many public buildings, including Regal Cinema, National Gallery of Modern Art and several malls and five-star hotels, were on the list. From the absence of ramps to accessible toilets, to barrier-free passages, over 95 per cent of the city was inaccessible to those on wheelchairs. It’s a telling state of affairs in a country which, according to the World Bank, has nearly 40-80 million disabled people. India, too, has its version of universal design which includes principles of equitability, usability, cultural context, and aesthetics.
“In India, The Rights of Persons with Disabilities Act, 2016, in obligation to the United Nations Convention, mentions that it has to be implemented by the state, based on the economic capacity of the public body. We have the laws in place but we fail at implementation. Of course, some states have made efforts. Goa, for instance, has made a lot of progress in its public places. In Mumbai, there are barely 30 buses that are on the roads that are disable-friendly. I believe political parties should make a part of their manifesto,” says Jamshed Mistry, an advocate at the Bombay High Court.
Hussain Indorewala, assistant professor, Kamla Raheja Vidyanidhi Institute for Architecture and Environmental Studies, Mumbai, was part of an access audit for railway stations in Mumbai more than a year ago. The team discovered only 39 per cent of railway stations adhered to the disabled-friendly government guidelines. Toilets would often be locked by the railways for fear of them being used by regular passengers. Also, most of them were on islands on end platforms, which meant a disabled person would need to use the overhead bridge to cross platforms and reach a toilet, and even so, it would very well be locked. “Such sensitivity must also begin in architectural colleges. It’s not mandatory to apply it in studio projects and if it does, it’s usually a specifically assigned studio. Also, the government guidelines are very tight, taking away any possibility of experimentation. Then, there are people who are circumstantially disabled, like the elderly, expectant mothers, or someone carrying a heavy load. Environment design has to think of all this. For instance, if you’re visually challenged, it’s difficult to even know where the entrance is in a public space. There would have to be audio clues of some kind. These are the challenges and constraints,” says Indorewala.
Until political will and public awareness come together, there is little hope that equitable and usable public spaces become a reality in our country.