2.68 crore individuals in India live with disabilities which is 2.21% of the total population of our country. Even though it is a sizable proportion of the population, the transport ecosystem of India hardly seems to care. From public means of transport to the more exclusive cabs, accessibility is a far dream.
It is easy to forget the plight of others when you are privileged enough to access services and opportunities. While travelling on a bus, have you ever thought about how many such buses are equipped with accessibility devices for people with disabilities? Just 7%.
Travelling turns into an inaccessible and challenging process regardless of the duration of the journey for individuals with disabilities.
We have been conditioned to take travel for granted because of our able bodies and minds but travelling with dignity for a person with a disability is still a big challenge. At the best, they have to rely on the ‘kindness of strangers and at the worst, face the brunt of these inaccessible structures.
Travelling in India, even for short distances for an individual with a disability is embedded with more roadblocks than one can imagine.
“Accessibility is a far fetched dream for most of us,” a student with a disability from Kolkata told YKA on the condition of anonymity.
Section 41 of the Rights of Persons with Disabilities Act, 2016 states that the government is supposed to make transportation accessible without making major structural changes.
It is supposed to provide aids and facilities for the people at airports, stations and the like. This seems like a facade because currently, less than 7% of public buses are fully accessible to wheelchair users.
Taxis and private cars are other modes of transport where there are extremely limited facilities available for people living with disabilities.
There have been reports of drivers behaving in a condescending manner with such customers. The recent incident of Paralympian Shams Aalam being denied entry into an Ola cab because of his wheelchair is a case in point.
Dear @Olacabs I am a wheelchair user and regularly use ola. Today driver cam to my pickup point look at me n said I can't take. Your wheelchair, I request him a lot but he didn't agree. His concern was my cab is new n your wheelchair can tear my seat. I really feel humiliate. pic.twitter.com/mUAX6mmLpZ
— Shams Aalam (@IamShamsAalam) September 24, 2021
If public personalities are subject to this, one can only imagine the plight of the general populace with disabilities. The general disdain for installing ramps, or other accessibility instruments exacerbates the problem and keeps mobility, a basic service out of reach for people with disabilities.
Uber has been formulating more disability-friendly policies with their Uber Acess which makes private cars a little more accessible to those who need physical assistance but the reality of insensitive drivers make these policies just a token gesture of inclusiveness.
Trains are one of the most used modes of public transport, with a majority of the population using them.
Even with new policies and reservations, the situation on the ground is hardly better. From the sleeping berths to the seats that are reserved for people with disabilities, it is a sorry state of affairs.
Adjusting to these seats is very difficult as individuals with disabilities often need more space to navigate than an average person.
Washrooms and restroom facilities found on trains and at railway stations are worse. Besides the fact that they are congested and unhygienic, they are neither equipped with accessibility features nor are there any designated personnel assigned on trains to assist persons with disabilities.
Buses are no better either. A recent change bought by the Tamil Nadu government provision of free travel for people with physical disabilities in Metropolitan Transport Corporation buses. However, the policy falls short as it does not take into account, individuals with invisible disabilities into account.
The process of accessing these buses too seems to be difficult for many because of the steep height and stairs. They have no ramps for wheelchairs and the congested seating persists to make it an uncomfortable environment and place for individuals.
Moreover, in the absence of proper implementation, there is always the risk of these provisions limiting themselves to paper.
“Arduous and straining – That’s what I feel when I travel,” an individual with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) said. Travelling with ADHD can be equally difficult and daunting especially when there are no systemic enabling measures to encourage and facilitate the same.
Planning a routine and keeping checklists to remember paths and essentials can help a person with ADHD to remember essentials and may be a potential solution alongside travelling with family or friends.
“I tend to do self-stimulating to keep myself occupied while travelling because it can be intense to travel for such long hours,” said an anonymous neuro-divergent student from the city of Kolkata.
Due to the lack of enough studies on it, individuals with autism tend to face several challenges while travelling in crowded buses and trains. Intense stress, anxiety might overwhelm them. Self-help guides and stimming toys while travelling makes it a little easier for people with autism.
Travelling with social anxiety or Agoraphobia can be a baffling task with loud noises, severe irrational anxiety and overwhelming thoughts. Several factors can trigger the individual and make them more vulnerable to severe emotional distress.
As much discussed as it is, the first point of action should be to sensitise the public and break the social stigma against people with disabilities. Empathy rather than sympathy should be our first step for achieving a friendlier space.
Arranging luggage and travel assistance at every station in case of trains and facilitating lift and elevator access in railways can go a long way in catalysing improved presence of people with disabilities. Building support groups to chart out solutions and suggest measures as well as provide a sense of community for individuals with mental health issues could help as well.
The family had, of course, flown before and done this and I was worried they wouldn’t be able to fly but the pilot and the airline signed off and it was an uneventful flight. I’m glad it went the right way.
— roxane gay (@rgay) February 19, 2020
Reservation of seats, strict implementation of the same along with structural changes in buses and trains on a large scale level from grass root levels is crucial.
Making sure that the various facilities such as stairs for buses, legroom are up to the mark along with sensitising the drivers and conductors to be more empathetic and understanding of needs of people with disabilities can act as positive reinforcement.
It is also of crucial importance to make sure that people with disabilities are actively involved in planning and formulating policies. It is pertinent to ensure representation in forums and giving them the much-needed space. Passing the mic is the need of the hour.
Even as we continue to make strides in building infrastructure, build bullet trains and other advanced modes of transportation, it is of paramount importance to not forget that true progress involves ensuring people from all sections have their basic, fundamental needs fulfilled.