Even though the Persons with Disabilities (Equal Opportunities, Protection of Rights and Full Participation) Act of 1995 guarantees equal opportunities for people with disabilities, many of them living in cities and towns across the country, including Chennai, still await accessible public infrastructure — from footpaths to buildings. On the occasion of International Day of Persons with Disabilities recognised by the United Nations on December 3, a few persons with disabilities from the city point to how a lot needs to be done to make Chennai’s public spaces, including beaches, theatres, malls, parks, religious places, permanently accessible to all for an inclusive society.
Need for wheelchair-friendly streets
TAP Varadakutti, the president of Tamil Nadu Udavikkaram Association for the Welfare of Differently Abled, has been highlighting the issues faced by people with disabilities across the state for many years now. “It is very difficult for someone with disability to access buses. There is a need for exclusive bus stops designed in such a way that those in wheelchairs can easily enter and exit a bus. The new Pondy Bazaar pedestrian plaza now allows people with disabilities to navigate the streets easily using the ramps provided. We need to have similar streets in other parts of the city as well,” suggests Varadakutti, who was conferred the ‘Change Makers Award’ by the late former Tamil Nadu Chief Minister J Jayalalithaa for working towards the issues faced by the differently-abled.
Staircases prevent many persons with disabilities accessing theatres, malls and even places of worship, he points out. “Even our beaches are tough to be accessed, preventing differently-abled from enjoying them with their friends and family members,” adds Varadakutti, who holds meetings every week with persons with disabilities from across the city, to flag their issues to the city administration.
Raising awareness through education
Of Chennai’s 70 lakh population, nearly a lakh are persons with different disabilities like blindness, hearing impairment, locomotor disability and mental illnesses, notes Varadakutti. “Across Tamil Nadu, the census estimates over 12 lakh people to have disabilities. Disabilities should be added to the curriculum so that children can be sensitised and can think of solving the infrastructural issues,” he stresses.
‘Inclusion will happen through accessibility’
Winner of Mrs Chennai Superwoman 2019, Bhagyam Anantharaman Aravind feels that Chennai is more inclusive when compared to other cities in the country. The differently-abled vouches this after living in other cities of India. “Here, a differently-abled person doesn’t need to prove a point to get people around them to help. Everyone is friendly and helpful. People, here, are empathetic. But infrastructure-wise, we have a long way to go. In the West and other foreign countries, the infrastructure for physically disabled in the workplace and even otherwise, is commendable,” says Bhagyam.
A motivational speaker and entrepreneur, she believes that when accessibility is taken care of at workplaces, school and colleges, inclusion will happen naturally. “The only common place where they are trying to make inclusive in the country would be airports. But in airports too, it’s not easy to move around. We have to walk or use wheelchairs for a long distance,” she adds.
(With inputs from Merin James)
Rolling out the carpet for accessible Marina
Marking the International Day of Persons with Disabilities, the city is set to witness a wheelchair-friendly Marina Beach on December 3 and 4. Greater Chennai Corporation, along with Vidya Sagar, an organisation that works with people with disabilities, and the Disability Rights Alliance, a coalition of groups advocating for people with disabilities, will be laying down a carpeted wooden pathway that allows persons in wheelchairs to get to the beach easily.
“We want all the places accessed by a person to be accessible to those with disabilities as well. Recreation is a right to all, including those with disabilities. As it is extremely hard to push the wheelchair through sand, the wooden planks will help movement easy, allowing the differently-abled to experience the waves,” Sathish Kumar, who is part of the Disability Rights Alliance, tells us.