Today, over 27 million people in India live with some form of disability. Even with the advances that have been made in recent years, persons with disabilities cannot yet fully participate in society with other citizens on an equal level. But what does effective participation with equality mean? To understand this better, we need to reconsider what we mean by not just ‘equality’ but also by ‘accessibility.’
Accessibility refers to a wide range of factors than just physical access. Social and psychological dimensions of participation are also crucial to the experience of accessibility. For a person with disabilities, barriers are a daily reality – physical, social, attitudinal, or emotional.
Imagine a barrier-free society adapted to fulfill the needs of persons with disabilities. Eliminating these barriers would contribute towards effective and equal participation in society. To build a disability-inclusive community for the future, we must take measures to eliminate obstacles to facilities, act as allies, and foster inclusion by realising that a society that is accessible to persons with disabilities is a society that is accessible to all.
India has made significant strides in addressing and tackling disability issues. Accessible India Campaign (Sugamya Bharat Abhiyan) is a nationwide campaign for achieving universal accessibility for persons with disabilities. It is being implemented by the Department of Empowerment of Persons with Disabilities under the Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment.
Despite these initiatives, many people with disabilities face many obstacles in their environment. These obstacles prevent them from participating in social, cultural, and professional lives on an equal basis with others. Disability should be regarded as an instance of diversity, not as a limitation. In this context, accessibility becomes a matter of inclusion. Conducting accessibility audits serves as a way to verify, to some extent, if any barriers remain. An accessibility audit examines institutional and attitudinal barriers that hinder people from equal participation. For instance, a person with visual impairment needs support that is different from a person with intellectual disabilities or hearing impairments. The concept of Universal Design (UD) comes into play here. It fosters the development of environments, products, programs, and services sensitive to and accommodating a broad range of individual abilities. UD promotes equal participation and empowers people by eliminating barriers to participation.
Since its inception, CBM India has been committed to persons with disabilities, families, and communities. It is CBM’s belief that without accessibility, the rights and freedoms of persons with disabilities are not recognized. Without access to the physical environment, transportation, information and communication, and other facilities and services, inclusion cannot be a reality. Through removing barriers and changing mindsets, CBM is actively working towards not just functional but cultural changes as well.
Among CBM’s accomplishments, promoting accessibility in India has been a pioneering effort: CBM initially developed accessibility guidelines and has since adopted the national accessibility guidelines. CBM is an empanelled accessible auditor under the Department of Empowerment of Persons with Disabilities to support its nationwide Accessible India Campaign. As part of its participation in the Global Network on Disability Inclusive and Accessible Urban Development (DIAUD), CBM has developed close working relationships with multi-stakeholder partners in India who work on issues related to disability and urban development.
An accessible built environment has been recognised as a core element of an inclusive society. It provides citizens with autonomy and the means to pursue an active social and economic life. To ensure the participation of persons with disabilities in all walks of life, CBM provides the following facilities/services:
• Creates awareness among the general public on the need of breaking barriers—physical, informational, and attitudinal
• Builds capacities by creating a resource pool of Access Auditors who will work independently towards promoting accessible environments to mainstream people with disabilities
• Enhances the proportion of accessible government buildings
• Supports creating accessible infrastructure with financial assistance
• Provides technical support by conducting access audits
Some of the broad areas under which CBM has worked include the following:
• Conducting accessibility audits of government and private buildings/offices
• Offering technical and financial support for the construction of accessible buildings/offices
• Providing training and capacity building for engineers on accessibility
• Providing accessible agricultural tools for farmers with disability
• Equipping schools with accessible infrastructure and other assistive devices
People with disabilities are part of the mainstream today. The diversity of its active and contributing members enriches a society in which everyone has the same opportunities. Rather than mere consumers of cultural forms, people with disabilities should be empowered to become mainstream producers.
As an empanelled Access Auditor, CBM was recently awarded a contract to conduct access audits on 30 government buildings in Namakkal district in Tamil Nadu. The sites include the Block Development Office, Taluk Office, Revenue Office, five other tourist destinations, and temples. During an access audit, both the positive aspects of buildings and potential barriers are highlighted. A team of nine members from CBM conducted the audit in Namakkal from 11th to 15th February 2022. The respective government departments will implement the recommendations of the access audit. It is worth highlighting that the models of specific infrastructure can be replicated across India.