How Accessible is India?

Back to India’s realities:

In India, post my London return in 2015 November, I was upbeat about creating accessible and inclusive spaces but everything changed with the research here. I became extremely disappointed that I was not able to find visitor surveys or statistics here. Most of our museums do not even know how many people visit them! Leave alone the records of the categories of visitors: school children (which grade and medium), families, senior citizens, women, wheelchair bound, blind, visually impaired, deaf, hearing impaired, dumb, speech impaired and those with learning difficulties like dyslexia, autism. If we do not know our visitor then how will we ever frame any policy, guideline, staff sensitisation and training, curatorial strategy or outreach programme?

Looking at every nook and corner of the Amer Palace 🙂

Since then, I have faced situations in India where prospective sponsors have shown a lot of interest for funding an Access programme but disappeared when it came to actually going through the arduous planning process. People are keen to patronise, dispense pity and fund quickfix events but not much interested in doing something long term.

The feeling that most of these heritage institutions exude is that we exist and come and visit us if you wish, we really don’t care if you don’t. Some museum staff express irritation if visitors walk into the gallery, while others have turned the creaky pedestal fans towards themselves letting the visitors sweat it out. You would know of personal rivalries and family issues, sometimes even of their neighbours, loudly discussed amongst Mauryan, Gandhara, Pala sculptures or even near the Bharhut stupa – sometimes I’ve felt the need to offer help to the staff!!! The loudly discussed political topics in miniature painting galleries are way more overpowering than the pantings on displays. I was physically shooed out of the Trivandrum state museum as I had alarmed the snoring gallery attendant out of her afternoon siesta, she might have been dreaming of an ogre and opened her eyes to see me and that’s it – I had no chance of seeing the museum. I wrote a long complaint but no one replied – it’s been 6 years!

Inclusion – no segregation… that’s how Access should work

Dr Anita Ghai writes, [1] “Disability primarily signifies exclusion, which is produced through a shifting, interconnected web of linguistic, legal, medical, political, social, economic structures. All forms of disability including restricted mobility; sight or Hearing impairment; learning difficulties; limited strength or agility; and speech and communication difficulties should be considered…

the ‘problem’ is not the Disabled person, but the lack of appropriate structures and Accessible services…the Disabled person faces a hostile environment designed for an ‘able – bodied’ society

She reiterated that the most important deterrent in integrating with society was:

  • Lack of Access to information, be it in the form of availability of Braille materials, augmentative measures or sign language training, heightens the oppression experienced by Disabled persons.”

Delving deeper into the Indian laws, I found the law that still governs the Disabled here to be as old as 1995 – not including any discussion on Depression at all. A decadent law,  will not stop people in taking their own lives or create a supportive society where the Depressed will have any avenues to talk.

The Law: 

[2]Persons with Disabilities (Equal Opportunities, Protection of Rights and Full Participation) Act of 1995

  • “it supports positive discrimination in favour of persons with disabilities through a quota system, reserving a certain number of places for persons with disabilities in the training and employment programmes of public- and private-sector entities
  • It also provides incentives to establishments that promote the employment of Disabled persons and preferential treatment through tax concessions, subsidies and grants”

The following were part of the Disabled:

  • Blindness
  • low vision
  • leprosy-cured
  • Hearing impairment
  • loco motor disability
  • mental retardation
  • mental illness

It was amended with:

  • In keeping with the needs and demands of the changing times, the Central Government has established the National Trust for the Welfare of Persons with Autism, Cerebral Palsy, Mental Retardation and Multiple Disabilities through an Act of Parliament namely the National Trust for the Welfare of Persons with Autism, Cerebral Palsy, Mental Retardation and Multiple Disabilities Act, 1999.

    According to the 2001 Census Report:

  • 21 million Indians or 2.1% of the population is suffering from some form of Disability
  • Visual Disability accounts for 27.9% of the population
  • Mental Disability is 10.3%
  • Speech Disability is 7.5%
  • Hearing Disability is 5.8%

We still follow an archaic, insensitive law in India as we still follow the first and second Disability models given below, when the rest of the world is rapidly striding towards the third or fourth model. Remember the previous post?

[3]Amongst the several Disability Models, the four most adhered to are:

  • Medical – the disabled is viewed as the “problem”, and in need of cure and treatment… the general approach within this model is towards special institutions for people with disabilities eg special schools… segregation
  • Charity – views the person with disabilities as the problem and dependent on the sympathy of others – a charity or welfare mode
  • Social – it emphasises institutional, environmental and attitudinal discriminations as the real basis for disability. Thus it is the society at large which disables the person with disabilities through discrimination, denial of rights, and creation of economic dependency
  • Rights-based – this builds on the insights of the social model to promote creation of communities, which accept diversities and differences, and have a non-discriminating environment in terms of Inclusion in all aspects of the life of society

I am the Palace, the Palace is me!

The Department of Empowerment of Persons with Disabilities (DEPwD), Ministry of Social Justice & Empowerment, Government of India, had launched the “Accessible India Campaign (Sugamya Bharat Abhiyan)” in 2015 as a nation-wide flagship campaign for achieving universal Accessibility. The campaign targets at enhancing the Accessibility of built environment, transport system and Information & communication eco-System. But we are yet to see any implementation of any of these ideals anywhere in India! At least I haven’t seen, if you have then please let me know.

The adaptation of policies of the government for reaching out and including the Disabled audiences and visitors is an important lesson for India to learn. We have not yet been able to successfully execute this. One recalls the 2001 India visit of Stephen Hawkins, the renowned physicist, when he desired to visit the Taj Mahal. Sadly, he could not realise his dream as not a single Indian monument was even remotely Accessible then! His desire prompted the ASI to take Access Audits though the most accessible feature that were added were wooden ramps, according to Shivani Gupta, Director, AccessAbility. It is only much later that some monuments like the Humayun’s Tomb amongst others have Accessible toilets, some Braille signage but doesn’t go much beyond that. Thank you Stephen Hawkins – though you left us without being able to see the Taj!

There needs to be an attitudinal shift, the draft of the new Policy made in 2014 has been able to address this shift though we are still to implement this Policy, it is not one of the topmost priorities of our legislators.

Some of the initiatives by the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) and museums in India in recent years are:

  • [4]Dehradun Circle, ASI, has published a booklet entitled “Monuments of Uttarakhand ” on 42 ASI protected Monuments of Uttarakhand in Braille Script. this booklet is being distributed free to the Visually challenged persons as well as to the institution those are working in the field
  • [5]The ASI has for the first time published guidebooks and brochures on the monuments of north-east India in Braille. The four publications, which are in Braille, include a guidebook on the monuments of Sivasagar in Assam and brochures on monuments of Sonitpur district and four maidams (tombs) of the Ahom Kings at Charaideo in the same State. Eight monuments of Tripura, including the Bhubhaneshwari Temple, and the rock carvings of Unakoti are featured in the fourth brochure
  • [6]The ASI has worked with NGOs in creating Braille and tactile information in Delhi and Agra’s important historical monuments. Qutb Minar, Red Fort & Fatehpur Sikri Group of Monuments have been declared as Accessible & most Disabled friendly monuments in past few years

But how many of us have access to any of these above – in my recent trip to Dehradun, I kept asking around but no one had heard anything. Maybe the ASI office has these documents, but what’s the whole point of not spreading the news if so much hard work has gone behind preparing these? And, why only for the Blind? Why only Braille? It’s definitely a good start, but a very very slow one…

[7]Anubhav – a tactile Gallery – has opened in the National Museum, New Delhi in December 2015. It is a separate Gallery designed for the Disabled with 22 tactile artefacts, Braille labels and audio guide. It has been created “with the help of UNESCO, Saksham (an NGO working with blind persons), Open Knowledge Community (OKC), Indian Institute of Technology, Delhi (IIT) and the National Platform for the Rights of the Disabled (NPRD).

My question: why segregate and not include? But, one has to remain positive and admit that it’s a big step for India.

I will await my destiny! The leader of ‘Apang Sansthan’, Bhavnagar

At the Amer Fort in Jaipur in early 2016, I came across a big group of visitors who were travelling from their hometown Bhavnagar in Gujarat to various tourist sites across Rajasthan, Delhi and even the hilly Uttarakhand. Bewildered at their tenacity since most of these places are absolutely physically inaccessible, forget any other kind of access, I spoke to their group. Kuldeep Singh Jhala said they belonged to the ‘Apang Sansthan’ at Bhavnagar and they were aware of the challenges of these places but had their families with them to share the burden. They felt bad though that their group leader could not participate in most activities since she was wheelchair bound.

That’s the day I decided that we will all have to work together to make our heritage and museums accessible for all, one day soon 🙂

One day soon, the place for the Disabled will be claimed 🙂

My space, My World 🙂

All photos by author, with permission from the members of ‘Apang Sansthan’ Bhavnagar.

[1] Rethinking Disability in India, Dr Anita Ghai, Routledge, 2015







5 thoughts on “How Accessible is India?

Add yours

  1. heartbreaking . We need a dedicated team with all permissions sanctioned and a green light to see their projects through. Utopia.


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