I was 21 when I was assigned to revive one of our plants. This was my first uphill battle—I realized how gendered these spaces are as I experienced them first-hand. The matter becomes even more complex when leadership is from a wheelchair. People’s traditional perception of leadership was challenged—this led to daily obstacles with management, which led to some of the senior leaders constantly testing my decision-making. Such incidents made me learn about the relationship between equal opportunity and accessibility.
It was experiences such as these that led me to start Svayam in 2000, with a singular mission: Dignity for all. This quest made me discover some of the most courageous people who have created a life for themselves and others despite the challenges of limited mobility.
Samuel Mani is an exceptional example of how differently-abled individuals can live incredible lives. Many people, including his parents, believed that he would never be able to survive in the real world independently as he had cerebral palsy. When he wanted to work in a multinational, he was told his wheelchair would “dirty the floor" and he had to walk to work. He refused to give up his passion for his profession and founded Neutron Computers. Today, it is one of South Asia’s few Microsoft-authorized sellers of refurbished computers.
Another example is Meenu, who uses a wheelchair and could not go to college as public transport in Delhi is not accessible to all. She had to sign up for correspondence courses. Her strength of character enabled her to set up a non-governmental organization, Yes! We Can, five years ago to enable persons with disabilities.
My life experiences have taught me a few things: Humans largely live by their perceptions, so people form their opinions of me just by looking at my wheelchair. This bias towards people with reduced mobility pervades the globe. People with reduced mobility are constantly underestimated and diminished. It happens in all sections of society and in every nation. It should not be forgotten that all Indians shape our growing economy and contribute to the gross domestic product(GDP).
The elderly in our communities have been a vibrant part of our economy throughout their lives by working and paying taxes. We cannot reduce the joys of their lives in their golden age by making them homebound.
The issue of accessibility includes people with injuries, elderly, pregnant women and people with disabilities. All of us face issues of accessibility in our lifetime, when our opportunities are reduced by temporary or permanent impairment. We cannot deny people in such circumstances human contact, which is the greatest comfort for any person. In India, the lack of accessible public infrastructure cages countless of such individuals in their homes, depriving the world of their talents and contributions.
Times are changing. Information communication has transformed drastically, and Indian companies are making it a point to be more inclusive. The composition of boardrooms has evolved since diversity became a key priority on the agendas of corporations striving for growth. Women have started to appear in influential positions and bring in a new style of leadership that necessitates sincere consensus. However, the corporate ecosystem also needs to create a more conducive environment for people with reduced mobility to be a primary part of the boardroom’s composition as well. Simple acts like ensuring that the job selection process is inclusive of candidates with disabilities by offering assistive technology on the website, can go a long way. Steps need to be taken to make a workplace accessible to all.
Further, public transport and infrastructure need to be inclusive to enable people with reduced mobility such as pregnant women, elderly as well as those with disabilities to travel with ease.
Installing ramps requires capital, which can suddenly turn scarce, even when more general expenditures, for example air-conditioning, are easily sanctioned. It is not people who are disabled, it is the environment which makes them disabled.
When people with reduced mobility are given the same skills to succeed as the rest of the population, they too can start successful businesses and empower others, giving back to society. With inclusive infrastructure, everyone can study, step out, work and explore opportunities. Equal opportunity can only exist with accessibility.
Sminu Jindal is managing director of Jindal SAW Ltd and founder-chairperson of Svayam, an accessibility rights organization.