(Apr 13 2015, TOI, By Amba Salelkar)
It's a great start when we hear about the Chen nai Corporation mandating the construction of ramps in government buildings. It's important that government offices be accessible for persons with disabilities so they can go collect their entitlements, complain about discrimination, and none of these is possible if they can't even enter buildings meant for these purposes.
There's that small issue though of persons with disabilities being, well, persons who do "normal" things, or rather, would like to do normal things that people like doing -watch movies, cultural programmes, go shopping, visit the beach, and eat at a restaurant.
Search engines for booking events online, or restaurants, refuse to have a "disabled friendly" option. This may be, in part, for the fact that such admission about buildings would be contrary to the National Building Code of 2002, though not invoking penal consequences. The same issue arises when we look at the "accessible sabhas" during Margazhi season - wheelchair access for the elderly isn't the same thing as wheelchair access for persons with disabilities. If a place is wheelchair-accessible except for a few steps that need to be covered, it makes a huge difference for someone who cannot stand up at all.
The free wheelchairs that are seen at airports and hotels are a boon for persons who would otherwise have to walk, but for persons with locomotor or nervous system-related disabilities, or spinal cord injuries, they make for a nightmarish experience. For these persons, even transferring to a chair is extremely uncomfortable.
Ramps, however, are only part of the solution. Much has been written on design and signage which helps spaces become more accessible for persons with visual and auditory impairments. A significant portion of Chennai's population is excluded from cinemas, despite the fact that easy technological solutions could be engaged with to provide for audio description and closed captioning. While dining or traveling with a person with a visible disability, staff will engage with the seemingly able bodied person, and often refer to the person with the disability in the third person, much as you would a child. Tourist destinations often have inaccessible information, though the Braille descriptions of the paintings in the Fort St George art gallery are a lovely addition to the collection.
Measures taken to accommodate persons with disabilities ultimately end up benefitting everyone. As long as ramps have manageable inclines, everyone likes taking them - especially when you have a baby stroller, or luggage, or you've hurt your knee. Closed captions help people who can't quite understand a language used in a film.
Staff at hotels who have undergone training on diversity make for an overall more comfortable experience. The recent pedestrian footpath project in Chennai has brought a smile to many an activist's face and my own when I saw my colleague, professor V S Sunder, wheel up to a vegetable vendor on his automated wheelchair and buy greens for home - something he hadn't done in a long time.
What's most important is that accessible venues mean that people with disabilities are no longer segregated, and can mingle with their able bodied friends and have a drink, or a swim, or be able to block book tickets for Ponniyan Selvan as a collective outing, without having to sit in a corner while everyone else has the best seats in the balcony. It means a larger market for venues, and larger participation with more diversity. For the cost of inclusion, it seems to be a very large return on investment.