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How India Doesn’t Let People With Disabilities Travel With Dignity

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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%. 

Representational image.

What It Means To Travel With A Disability

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.

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. 

It Is Not Just Physical Disabilities Though!

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.

What Can We Do Better?

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.

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.

The author is part of the current batch of the Writer’s Training Program.
Featured image is for representational purposes only.
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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

Read more about his campaign.

Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

Read more about her campaign.

MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Read more about her campaign. 

A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Find out more about the campaign here.

A native of Bhagalpur district – Bihar, Shalini Jha believes in equal rights for all genders and wants to work for a gender-equal and just society. In the past she’s had a year-long association as a community leader with Haiyya: Organise for Action’s Health Over Stigma campaign. She’s pursuing a Master’s in Literature with Ambedkar University, Delhi and as an MHM Fellow with YKA, recently launched ‘Project अल्हड़ (Alharh)’.

She says, “Bihar is ranked the lowest in India’s SDG Index 2019 for India. Hygienic and comfortable menstruation is a basic human right and sustainable development cannot be ensured if menstruators are deprived of their basic rights.” Project अल्हड़ (Alharh) aims to create a robust sensitised community in Bhagalpur to collectively spread awareness, break the taboo, debunk myths and initiate fearless conversations around menstruation. The campaign aims to reach at least 6000 adolescent girls from government and private schools in Baghalpur district in 2020.

Read more about the campaign here.

A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

The Transmen-ses campaign aims to tackle the issue of silence and disregard for trans men’s menstruation needs, by mobilising gender sensitive health professionals and gender neutral restrooms in Lucknow.

Read more about the campaign here.

A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform Change.org, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on Change.org has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in Change.org’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

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