Home / Politics / News /  Buildings in India inaccessible to millions of disabled

When Shivani Gupta wants to lecture at a school of architecture about the importance of designing buildings accessible to everyone, she often can’t.

That’s because Gupta, an architect who specializes in issues of access, also uses a wheelchair herself. And hardly any architecture school has been built with accessbility in mind.

Even as the movement for disabled rights has gathered steam and a steady stream of public interest lawsuits put more pressure on the government, most malls, housing complexes, cinemas—even schools and government buildings—remain effectively off limits for those, whose ability to move around is restricted by a physical disability.

One area that remains lacking, say activists, architects and academics, is the fact that India’s architects and planners receive little to no training in creating accessible buildings, towns and cities—meaning that both the government and companies in India’s booming realty sector sometimes import talent from abroad.

Part of the solution, say Gupta and other disability rights advocates, lies in creating a new generation of architects and planners that automatically incorporate features, from wheelchair ramps that aren’t too steep to contrasting colours that allow those with impaired vision to read signs, into their work.

“Our architecture schools need to start addressing this as part of the mandatory courses, and not something that just gets taken as an elective by five or six students," says Gupta. “So much of it is about sensitivity. So, when you put in an elevator in a project, we need to ask, ‘What about the 10 steps leading up to it? We need to create the mindset.’"

The School of Planning and Architecture (SPA) in New Delhi may be one exception to the rule, according to activists and architects. One core curriculum course on urban environments at SPA has an entire section dedicated to creating accessible structures. The department of industrial design has other sections in the works as well, says K.T. Ravindran, who serves as dean. While he notes that all students coming out of his school have some training in creating accessible buildings, he concedes: “There certainly is room for improvement. Right now it doesn’t apply across the board and that has to be introduced."

The problem, as he sees it, is that most other schools don’t address the issue because the Council on Architecture, which oversees the curriculum and accredits university programs, doesn’t require it. A Council official said its president Vijay Sohoni was out of the country and not immediately available for comment.

Often, even when work has been done to make a building accessible it is only in letter, according to Gupta and other advocates. And at public buildings, where access is mandatory according to the law, this means public funds may eventually need to be spent to correct shoddy work.

“I’ve seen ramps that are so steep they look more like rocket launchers," says Gupta, who runs a six-month-old firm called AcessAbility, which advises clients on how to make their buildings disabled-friendly. So far, the company, which she describes as a “social entrepreneurship" venture, has performed audits for major corporate clients such as ITC’s Welcomgroup hotels and graded government buildings on their ease of access.

Firms such as Gupta’s may offer at least a partial solution by bringing technical skills to a sector that has so far been dominated by non-governmental organizations that primarily work on increasing awareness.

“We need professionals, more hard-nosed people to get this training," says Javed Abidi, executive director of the National Centre for Promotion of Employment of Disabled People. “You can put up a couple of Braille signs somewhere, say in a few of Delhi’s autorickshaws, and hold a press conference to say they are now accessible, but that doesn’t really mean they are."

Abidi has filed several lawsuits to open up access to public places, including a landmark case against Indian Airlines (now Indian) that forced the carrier to provide lifts that would allow wheelchair-bound passengers to board its planes. The centre, which estimates there are 70 million people with various disabilities in India, is pushing for a national access institute and takes credit for getting the government to include disabled as a category in the 2001 census. Shobhana Bhartia, vice-chairperson of HT Media Ltd, which publishes Mint, is an executive trustee of the centre.

However, the problem doesn’t start with architects, but rather with a lack of political will to tackle accessibility at all levels of government, say Abidi and others.

“I’ve got nothing against including this in the curriculum but I’m not sure that’s going to make for more disabled-friendly buildings," says Chandrashekar Prabhu, who edits a trade journal for the Indian Institute of Architects. “If you’re sensitive, it doesn’t require two years of course work. You do it anyway."

The problem is weak enforcement of laws that require access for the disabled, not education or a shortage of domestic design talent, adds Prabhu, who also served as president of the Maharashtra Housing and Area Development Authority.

“Architects are professionals. You tell them what you want and they’ll give it to you," says Abidi. “It’s really a policy issue. It should be treated like a fire-safety certificate. No building plan should ever move forward without checking this. If it’s not accessible, don’t approve it."

“I think where architects in India sometimes fall short is in educating the clients about things like sustainable design and accessibility," says Porie Saikia-Eapen, a New York-based architect who consults on several major government projects here. “Instead they cater to the whims of the client. But, if you are designing something, it’s your responsibility to explain these things and a large number have failed to do that." Saikia-Eapen trained in India in the 1970s before moving to the US.

Meanwhile, the booming realty sector is increasingly demanding that construction meet international quality standards, says R.R. Singh, director general of the National Real Estate Development Council.

“Up until now, it has not been very much in the picture but slowly, builders are taking more of an interest in these types of things," as some customers willing to pay high prices in top-flight malls and housing developments demand them so that aging parents who have difficulty moving around, or even new mothers with prams, can more easily enter and exit new developments.

And, to meet the needs of customers, developers—and even the government in cases such as the Delhi Metro—sometimes bring in consultants from abroad to help them design properties that meet international standards, says Singh.

ITC-Welcomgroup, which operates 70 luxury hotels around the country, retained Gupta’s firm to audit its hotels and make recommendations about how to make the properties accessible for all. The firm has also designed a new type of guest room that is more or less indistinguishable from a standard room but can be easily converted with a few small modifications to existing equipment when a disabled guest checks in.

“The winds of change are blowing this way," says Niranjan Khatri, general manager of the chain’s environment initiatives. “This issue has arrived in India and I can only see a huge scale-up coming as the international players move in," and with events such as 2010’s Commonwealth Games approaching. However, corporations that address accessibility remain the exception rather than the rule, he added. Khatri declined to discuss the cost of the project, saying only that the company had made up its mind. “Cost was immaterial."

Gupta estimates that adding accessibility features to a development at the drawing-board stage generally represents approximately 2% of a project cost while retrofitting existing building can be considerably more expensive since extensive work may have to be performed.

For now, the demand for technical expertise in this area remains small. Gupta concedes that AccessAbility’s business hasn’t reached where she would like it to be and that marketing the need for its services has been as important as selling people on the design talent of the young firm.

“Most of the time people still need to be made aware of the need to do this. That’s why I say we’re a social entrepreneurship because advocacy remains a big part of it," she said. “But I wouldn’t say business is brilliant—yet."

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