Most of the government buildings under the PWD, which are frequented by hundreds of differently abled people daily, are yet to come up with differently abled friendly features, though the official version is that ‘75% of work is over in around 85 buildings in Chennai’. Those at the receiving end, however, ask: Is the government blind?
It is not at her son’s school alone that Malarvizhi encounters such difficulties. “I am forced to depend on strangers whenever I visit a government office. I hesitate to ask help because most of the visitors to the government offices have their own worries and prefer to pretend as if they themselves are blind. Sometimes, some youngsters come forward and ask whether we require any help. But that won’t be the case always, and most often it turns out to be a long wait,” she said.
Malarvizhi’s is not an isolated case. There are several others like her who struggle to cope with the limited facilities the city offers to its differently abled citizens. Though the State government proudly claims of initiating several measures for the benefit of the differently abled, hardly a handful of government offices — among around a hundred buildings maintained by the Public Works Department in and around Chennai — can be bracketed under the differently abled friendly category.
Most of the government buildings that come under the PWD don’t have differently abled friendly features in place. These buildings include the government schools, courts, the Collectorate, and tahsildar offices, that are frequented by hundreds of differently abled people daily. The official version, however, is that differently abled friendly features are “in the process of being incorporated” in over 85 buildings in Chennai and that “almost 75 per cent of the works are over”.
S Nambu Rajan, general secretary, Tamil Nadu Association for the Rights of All Types of Differently Abled and Caregivers, said that the difficulties being faced by the differently abled in the society are innumerable and often beyond comprehension.
“We have so many difficulties which cannot be explained in words. The Rights of Persons with Disabilities Act, 2016, stipulates that all public spaces, including government buildings, must have the infrastructure to make them accessible to the differently abled. The differently abled stand a risk of falling if the wheelchairs descend at a faster pace. Most of the buildings do not even have wheelchairs that the differently abled can access for moving inside the premises,” Nambu Rajan told DT Next.
“Even in Secretariat, there is no proper accessibility for the differently abled. Many other important government buildings too do not have any facilities for us. Same is the case with railway stations and bus stops, where there are no adequate ramps. The government should first allot funds for setting up ramps, lifts and differently abled friendly toilets, which they fail to,” he said.
The differently abled complain that though there are ramps in some government buildings, the most common used offices like taluk offices and regional transport office buildings don’t have enough space in the ramps for manoeuvring the curve. “Sometimes, we are forced to lift the wheelchair and place it on the ramp and only then we can move,” said Sumathi, a differently abled from Royapuram.
Lack of differently abled friendly toilets in such buildings and public places is another big concern. As most of the toilets are at an elevated level with a few steps to negotiate, differently abled find it hard to go in and out without taking help from others. “It is embarrassing, especially at crowded public places like a railway station, to seek a stranger’s help in going to toilets. But, we don’t have a choice,” said Manikandan of Thiruvanmiyur, who has a walking disability.
In some government buildings like the Connemara library, though ramps and other differently abled friendly measures have been arranged, they remain closed ever since the time they were constructed. Library staff point out that the library gets so many visitors belonging to the differently abled category daily, but for some strange reason, the ramp was never opened for the needy ever since it was constructed.
“The only government building which could be called differently abled friendly is the Chennai corporation office. Earlier, we had faced a lot of difficulties to get inside the office. But after constructing ramps, it has become easy for us to go there and meet officials with various applications. However, we don’t find such facilities in the zonal office. We have to take others’ help to get inside or depend upon the visitors there to hand over our petitions also. It would be a blessing if the authorities consider our plight and take some steps to address our issues,” said Hariharan VM, a member of Tamil Nadu Association for the Rights of All Types of Differently Abled and Caregivers.
Even the general public, who give a thought to the problems faced by the differently abled, are demanding that the government initiate some measures. “Whenever I come across any differently abled struggling alone at any public place I check out whether I could be of any help. But we cannot expect the same with all. Most of the people prefer to ignore such people and carry on with their work,” said Gandhimathi K, a resident of Tondiarpet, who works in an export company.
“It is sad that the authorities leave them at the mercy of the general public. They are also taxpayers. A developing city should have amenities that cater to all sections of society. They would not have to wait for someone from the public to help them out if there are ramps available and the lifts are made differently abled friendly,” she said.
It was in 2017 that the State government allocated Rs 27 crore for construction of ramps in government buildings and to modify the lifts and toilets to make them differently abled friendly, as well as to incorporate braille features for the benefit of visually-challenged. Currently, the PWD has constructed ramps with handrails at the Collectorate building and the Rippon Building, the city Corporation headquarters. The Collectorate building also boasts of braille features on its walls that help the visually-challenged to identify the routes.
Speaking to DT Next, E Douglas, Assistant Executive Engineer, PWD (Building wing), claimed that the government is in the process of converting all the buildings under it differently abled friendly. “We are doing it step by step. Soon, we will be installing lifts, a ramp with handrails, and braille symbols with route indicators for the visually-challenged. We are waiting for the government to allocate funds for implementing the same in the rural areas of the city. Later, it will be implemented throughout the State. We have installed braille letter features at the Collectorate. We have to initiate the same in other places too,” he said.
On how the department plans to initiate the process in other buildings and across the State, Douglas said: “We receive requests from differently abled persons and their associations through the Social Welfare department. Based on that, we will ask the engineers in various districts to visit the place and study the feasibility. Later, the estimate for the same will be forwarded to the government.”