By Parvinder Singh:
If you are savvy about the issue of ‘accessibility’, then there’s a strong possibility that the mere mention of the word has moved your imagination to a wheelchair, a disabled person and a ramp. But what if I told you that down the years, even a non-disabled person’s life – YOUR life – your employability, social life and participation in general, might depend upon ‘accessibility’?
Contrary to what many believe, accessibility does not concern only a specific group of people. This mindset is one of the biggest barriers that feed exclusion, leaving millions marginalised. It reduces the idea of accessibility merely to ramps or entry points, thus underplaying the importance of accessibility as an agenda for everyone.
So first, let’s agree on what we mean by accessibility.
Accessibility refers to physical and social access to the built environment, transportation and services as well as to information and communication technologies and systems. In short, everything that is designed and made by people to be used by people, must be accessible and convenient for everyone to use, and must be responsive to human diversity.
When I look at monuments and heritage buildings, what always strikes me is how inaccessibility – the tall structures, the numerous stairs, the steep climbs – was built in, as a feature for displaying power. In other words, the more inaccessible and distant a structure is, the more overwhelming the experience was. It also reflects how a culture looks at its diversity and social power dynamics.
Fortunately, we are moving away from this. Today, you hear talks of child-friendly architecture and features, gendered spaces that do not create vulnerability for girls and women; you hear about mobility-friendly places for the ever-increasing ageing population to enjoy their freedom of movement. However, the movement is still very slow.
Apart from being an issue of rights and equality, lack of inclusion and accessibility also reduces economic productivity. A World Bank estimate puts the cost of exclusion of people with disabilities from the workplace at between 3-7% of a country’s Gross Domestic Product. The logic and entitlement of universal accessibility is not just built around economic productivity; it is still a significant lens if you are into assessing return on investment. You may want to read this ‘mind-opening’ report (not using the phrase ‘eye-opening’ on purpose as it is again discriminatory) supported by CBM.
Over the past two decades, the importance of including disability in the policy agenda is being increasingly recognised across the world. The need for promoting greater access as an effective approach to reversing exclusion and enhancing the equalisation of opportunities in a sustainable way, has been adopted globally through the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UNCRPD).
As a nation, India has made progress towards recognising and ensuring the rights of people with disabilities. The Persons with Disabilities (Equal Opportunities Protection of Rights and Full Participation) Act 1995 and a number of other schemes have provided policy and legal instruments for ensuring access and equal participation. But we have a long way to go to create a barrier-free and equal opportunities society.
The Accessible India Campaign by Government of India is creating a buzz through workshops, media mentions and industry meetings. But the success of all of this depends on a critical and fundamental change that we need in the narrative on disability and accessibility. We need to move our conversations from ‘disability-friendly’ to ‘Design for All’. That shift will expand the basis for support for an accessible and inclusive world.
The ‘Design for All’ approach is clearly different from ‘Design for the Disabled’ as it is about environments that all people, regardless of age and abilities, are able to use to the largest extent possible, without the need for adaptation or specialised design. ‘Design for All’ can be defined as a philosophy and a process for achieving universal access to environments, products and services, which are respectful, safe, healthy, functional, comprehensible and aesthetic.
‘Design for All’ recognises that ‘inclusion’ equals ‘accessibility’ and applies to social, cultural, intellectual and environmental conditions. So, whether you are a designer, an engineer, an event planner or a media professional, every time we build or create something, we are making a choice against or in favour of inclusion and universal accessibility. This fundamentally defines how inclusive or discriminatory we are as a society.