Shruti Pushkarna: In the 75 years of Azadi, does the disabled population have access to independent living?

01 Sep,2022

Shruti PushkarnaBy Shruti Pushkarna


August 15, 2022 saw the high point of the two-plus-year celebrations initiated as Azadi Ka Amrit Mahotsav by the government in March 2021. 75 years of progressive India!


That’s quite a milestone. Except the glorious narrative seems to be a bit lopsided for the marginalised sections of the Indian population.


The Narendra Modi=led government has a special inclination towards formulating mantras or slogans that build recall and popularise the leadership among the ignorant masses. The latest one ‘Har Ghar Tiranga’, saw proud Indians displaying selfies taken against the national flag. The other iconic ones include ‘Achche Din…’, ‘Minimum Government, Maximum Governance’, ‘Beti Bachao Beti Padhao’, ‘Make in India’, ‘Ab ki baar…’, et cetera. It’s a lengthy list of hollow promises.


Seven years ago, professionals and organisations dedicated to the cause of including persons with disabilities into the mainstream society were also awestruck by one such rhetoric.


On December 3, 2015, International Day of Persons with Disabilities, Prime Minister Narendra Modi launched the ‘Accessible India’ campaign, also known as the ‘Sugamya Bharat Abhiyan’. The big idea was to ease the access to Built Environment, Transportation System as well as the Information and Communication Ecosystem, for persons with disabilities. Aimed at providing equal opportunities of access and growth to all citizens by 2017-2019, Sugamya Bharat was lauded by the disabled community and its advocates.  Until reality slapped us in the face, yet again.


Accessibility audits conducted close to the 2019 deadline, reported major gaps in what was promised versus what existed on the ground. Deadlines were extended as a result. First it was March 2020. Then June 2022. But as per parliamentary responses and the correspondence between the Department of Empowerment of Persons with Disabilities (DEPwD) and chief secretaries of states and Union Territories, a lot remains unaccomplished till date.


Just to give you a better understanding of the objective of this nationwide campaign, and how critical it is to the 2.68 crore (severely underreported) disabled Indians. Here’s what the government set out to achieve by 2019 (or June 2022).


The campaign was targeted to achieve universal accessibility for Persons with Disabilities (PwDs) under three verticals.


1. Build Environment Accessibility


The objective is to eliminate all barriers obstacles and barriers to indoor and outdoor facilities like schools, medical facilities, workplaces, government buildings etc. This also includes public spaces like parks, footpaths, roads and so on. An accessible building is one where there are no barriers in entry and exit or using any of the facilities housed in the premises. Such a building is equipped with ramps, elevators, walkways, accessible toilets, signage, lighting, alarms et cetera for ease of navigation for a person with disability.


2. Transportation System Accessibility


Like anyone else, PwDs rely on the transportation system to get around from one place to the other. It could be for work, education, leisure or health. This includes transportation via trains, buses, airplane and taxis. This means that bus stops, railway stations and airports should also be fully accessible for a disabled person traveling independently.


3. Information and Communication (ICT) Ecosystem


In the age of information overload, it is imperative that PwDs have access to information of all sorts. This includes ensuring access to content in the form of documents, website, mobile applications and all audio-video media. Under this vertical, the authorities will also work to enhance the available pool of sign language interpreters for the benefit of those with hearing and speech impairments.


Sounds propitious and revolutionary, doesn’t it?  It is, on paper.


Data reported by DEPwD cites several gaps in implementation. Only 585 of the 1030 central government buildings have been made barrier-free. Similarly, just 48.5% of the state government buildings have been made accessible. Public transport accessibility has a long way to go, with only 8.73% of buses made accessible. Access to information isn’t exactly easy to come by, either. Legal and other official documents in the public space, including health (Covid) notifications continue to be circulated/ published in inaccessible formats. A lot of websites, mobile applications and other digital services still don’t comply with the universal design and accessibility guidelines, denying information access to PwDs.


75% of children with disabilities in India don’t attend school, lack of social inclusion, reasonable accommodation and shoddy implementation of laws and policies being some of the reasons. And of the almost 3 crore disabled population, 1.3 crore are employable between the age of 15 and 59. But only 34 lakh have been employed.


Lifting the barriers of access in the physical and virtual infrastructure can open up opportunities of education and employment for millions of persons with disabilities.


Unless and until the surrounding environment ceases to quash the ability in disability, how can the country’s disabled revel in Azadi ka Amrit Mahotsav?


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. She was a part of the founding team of MxMIndia. Shruti writes for MxMIndia every other Thursday. Her views here are personal. She can be reached via Twitter at @shrutipushkarna



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