By Akanksha Lohmore:
“My disability exists not because I use a wheelchair, but because the broader environment isn’t accessible.”
Delhi’s national capital territory houses more than 2 lakh differently abled people, as reported in Census 2011. When it comes to the whole country, the census (2011) quotes that India accommodates 26,810,557 persons with myriad of disabilities, physical and mental. A figure of more than 26 million is not a small number that one can ignore its welfare and participation for country’s economy and growth. Education becomes one of the foremost concerns.
Delhi University claims to stand at the top in the list of universities in India. While it is well known for its alumni, glamorous student life and high standards of academia, we almost comfortably choose to ignore that a large portion remains unheeded when it comes to their needs and aspirations on very fundamental levels.
As a democratic state the Indian government brought a significant change. The Persons With Disabilities Bill (2014) [PWD] ensures equal opportunities, protection of fundamental rights and full participation of persons with disabilities. It does so in terms of reservations and making the environment disability friendly and accessible. The Bill states that the violation of any provision will attract imprisonment and/or fine. As a student at DU, it is sad to say that my university has not done enough.
Delhi University: Claims And Actions
Delhi has seen many strong disability rights movements, the result of which perhaps is reflected in Delhi University’s efforts in optimize the campus, facilities and dissemination of knowledge for the differently abled.
With the objective of making it disabled friendly, Delhi University has handed the onus to the Equal Opportunity Cell (EOC). In its Disability Statement, the University reiterates its commitment towards sensitizing the environment of the university regarding the problems of differently abled. The Statement also points out its objective of removing physical barriers and making education accessible, with tuition assistance, special equipment, counselling, and trained readers and writers.
This is in accordance with The PWD Act (2014) by the Government which especially talks about making the environment access friendly.
When I turned to Google to know more, to my surprise there has been a significant amount of media attention that was given to the issue. Vice Chancellor Dinesh Singh’s statements, and funds granted for disabled friendly infrastructure has been talked about. While the discourse on the issue has been at the forefront, its resolution has not been.
DNIS.org researched expansively on the issue and found grave situations across prominent colleges. For most colleges, accessibility is mostly considered for people on wheelchairs. Apart from installing text-to-speech software on dedicated computer(s) in the library, there is inadequate concern for the access needs of people with sensory impairments. Access for wheelchair users also, is restricted to the ground floor only and there is no access to facilities on the upper floors.
DU is known for students coming to study from all over the country. But it is sad to note that not a single hostel in DU is disabled friendly. Many students have to take accommodation outside the campus which makes it even heavier, on both their pockets and efforts to receive an education at the university.
The Vivid Barriers
While EOC’s brochure paints a pretty picture for the PWD, students themselves have had some not so pleasant experiences with the university.
“While lack of infrastructure can still be managed in terms of help we take from people passing by, lack of study material in consumable form is nearly unmanageable. All we depend on are our classmates helping us out in accessing their class notes to study,” a Masters student of political science elaborated on the problem. This problem was not specific to just her. From students enrolled in undergrad to those in post-graduation, lack of study material has been a major concern.
On asking the students about infrastructural experiences, their everyday struggle became all too clear. “I come from Anand Vihar, special bus for PWD does not operate there. I come by a DTC bus every morning. When I get down, I am forced to take someone’s help to reach the college. The traffic in the campus worsens my situation.”
“Why? Don’t tactile pavements help you walk and navigate?”
He lightly smiles, “People park their cars on pavements. These tactile tiles are broken at several spots. Sometimes, there are open gutters on the pavements that are not paid heed to. These conditions make me question if I should rather be home and study than visit the university everyday with the risk of getting injured.”
In 2006, a policy statement was drafted by the University to commit to providing barrier free environment in all university colleges where students including the differently abled can move freely. A report by the EOC was taken out too to cite the work done and the work intended in the area. But has it really happened?
Daulat Ram College hosts a major NSS team in the University helping many differently abled students across University. Having talked to the faculty members of the college and the University, the picture is still uncomfortable for me. While ramps have been constructed with new infrastructural elements, the two storeys above in the building, accommodating more than half of the classrooms and lab are absolutely inaccessible for PWD students. Rangshala, the centre of all community participation in the college remains inaccessible, evident of how PWD students are structurally left out of the community spirit of these institutions. Similar attitude of callousness about the accessibility issue was seen in other on-campus colleges too.
A PWD faculty member of one of DU colleges points out that when visually impaired students do reach the colleges’ gates, there is no indication that they have arrived at the gate. Sensory indications, especially audio, can help students know where they have arrived.
The main campus area, where the iconic Arts Faculty building stands proudly has another tale to tell. The tiled ground pattern in the area makes navigation for visually impaired almost impossible. Assistance from passersby remains the only option for these students.
Little decorative pillars right at the two main entrances of the main area are severe hurdles for visual and motor disabilities, especially when rickshaws and traffic pose as hurdles at the entrances.
The Unseen Hurdles
While there are tangible laws created as far as the infrastructural possibilities are concerned, implications of the recent upheavals in the academic environment are nowhere near helping the goals of providing equal opportunities and access to the less privileged.
With the rapid changes that the University is seeing in terms of semester system, FYUP, CBCS systems, year after year, extra time, effort, and the infrastructural help that could have helped the differently abled students to cope up with University academics and environment has become almost negligible. Faculty members tread on their toes to keep up with under researched academic methods introduced almost every six months. Hence, no extra attention and help goes in the right direction.
With the already existing dearth of academic resources for the differently abled, the new academic systems are adding to the hardships of differently abled students.
100% Barrier-Free Environment: A Reality
For those, who think that “disabilities” are an absolute reality and doing anything to change it would rather be a futile effort, well, think again.
Gwalior, as a district can now boast of being a barrier-free and disabled friendly city. Over the last two years, the government administration has managed to make the district 95% barrier-free and all schools have been made 100% barrier-free. Persons with disabilities, senior citizens, women, especially pregnant women, have all benefitted with the effort.
There are universities in the U.S. that the administration can learn from, which not only provide fundamental access to their infrastructure but also take adequate care of recreational and growth needs of PWD students.
Another success story is marked by the Amar Jyoti Charitable Trust which has made the idea of integrated, inclusive and ‘Education For All’ more than a mere thought by establishing an institution that is more than friendly in terms of both, infrastructure and environment.
The country looks up to Delhi University for inspiration and learning. DU’s role in contributing to ‘Education For All’ is undeniably huge. I believe, a step by Delhi University may encourage other universities and schools in rural India too. Dropout rates among PWD students could drastically drop. That, sir, would proudly showcase ‘Education for All’.
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