Shruti Pushkarna: Is barrier-free access to physical spaces not a newsworthy agenda?

16 Jun,2022

Shruti PushkarnaBy Shruti Pushkarna


Last month, Delhi hit a record temperature of 49.2 degree Celsius, the hottest I have witnessed in nearly four decades of living in the capital. The sweltering heat from April to July leaves you dehydrated, drained and demotivated. The only respite from the incinerator is an air-conditioned environment.


From your home to the car, to the office, and back. All controlled air-conditioning. And the fun activities are also limited to indoor spaces, like, restaurants, cinema theatre, shopping malls et cetera.


One could argue why step out and suffer the heatwave, especially if it’s not for work. True. But forced internment due to the protracted spread of Covid-19 has driven most of us to our saturation point. Now we seek the tiniest excuse to mingle with the external world, happily battling dust storms, soaring temperatures or pouring rain. Nothing can stop us.


Except something does stop some of us from going out to shop, eat, watch a film, see a doctor, or have a business meeting. Not everyone is fortunate to experience carefree excursions.


I’m hinting at the largeish section of the population comprising persons with disabilities and the elderly. Often simple things in physical environments that we may overlook or dismiss, turn out to be serious barriers in movement for senior citizens and the disabled folk.


Here’s a picture I took of the entry point of a shopping arcade in Greater Noida, Uttar Pradesh, which also happens to house a lot of doctors’ clinics as well as pathology labs.



Interestingly, you can spot a ramp for wheelchair users but it has been permanently blocked with iron bars. The escalator is broken and functions more like a steep staircase. When I went to see my gastroenterologist for acute abdominal pain, the climb up to the first floor was an unnecessary excruciating exercise. I could have taken the elevator but it was small, stinky and crowded. On another visit, the assistant barged in to inform my doctor of a patient who couldn’t be transported upstairs. As he stepped down to examine her in the car, I stared at the (token) wheelchair parked in one corner of the clinic.


Some time ago, I was accompanying my CEO for an official meeting to a coffee shop in a popular Delhi mall. Instead of going down to the basement parking, we chose to be dropped off at the mall entrance with steps leading up. Used to guiding him to the hand rail so he can climb the stairs on his own despite vision impairment, I was deterred by the huge flower pots placed on both sides of the staircase. He had to stick to my elbow for navigation.


I wondered what if he were not accompanied by a sighted person? I also thought about children and their grandparents who need handrails for essential support. Why block a utility in the name of aesthetics? Needless to mention, that the flower pot phenomenon is commonly seen in many buildings, including schools, hospitals, government offices and so on.


I reached out to the mall authorities by posting a tweet, citing the concern and hoping to raise the general awareness levels. Here’s a link to the Twitter thread that managed to initiate a conversation, engage some and incite some, if not resolve the problem.


But I must confess I have also encountered a few positive initiatives ensuring ease of access in the city. And I find it equally important to highlight and laud such interventions. I have been visiting the famous Priya cinema complex in Vasant Vihar, Delhi since my school days. But on a more recent trip, I noticed the welcome addition of a well-lit rampway on the way to the parking lot.



There are at least two shopping malls where a small wheelchair lift is installed adjacent to a short flight of stairs. One is shown in the picture below. The India Habitat Centre also has a stairlift, a mechanical device lifting people up and down from their basement halls.



I was also pleased to see an aged woman using a specially designed wheelchair, enjoying a hearty meal with her entire family in an accessible (read roomy and barrier-free) restaurant. In fact, some tables in another restaurant were reserved for such guests.



Very often all it takes to accommodate people with different needs is an open mind, right attitude and awareness. Informative engagements with various stakeholders can prove effective in countering hostility, apathy and prejudice.


Many a times, I tweet hoping some friend or ex-colleague in the media will take note and campaign for equal rights for persons with disabilities as well as those limited by age or illness.


We’ve seen consistent reporting on urban developmental problems of potholes, badly designed flyovers, dangerous curbs, which cause several deaths every year. Do the barriers of ingress and egress go unreported because they are not life threatening?


Why can’t the media do something about the ignorance impeding access for millions in the country?


Shruti Pushkarna is a former journalist who now works as Director, EnAble India where she heads North India operations as well as media and communications outreach. Shruti writes for MxMIndia every other Thursday. Her views here are personal. She can be reached via Twitter at @shrutipushkarna


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