Accessibility January 28, 2021
Build Back “Better”: a misnomer for transportation without Accessibility and inclusivity?
Apoorv Kulkarni, Associate Director, Ola Mobility Institute
Globally, transport systems have taken a massive hit during the Covid-19 pandemic, and the situation is no different in India. For instance, the Delhi Metro has incurred a revenue loss of over INR 1000 crores during the lockdown. Nevertheless, governments and urban planners are redesigning transport systems to provide safe, affordable and reliable transport options. In this process, it is extremely important to ensure that the new systems are inclusive and accessible for all. A failure to do so poses a risk of further marginalising many vulnerable communities such as 100 million+ Indians living with a disability.
Even before COVID-19, Persons with Disabilities (PwDs) suffered tremendous transport disadvantages. Using footpaths safely has been difficult for PwDs on account of the absence of curb ramps, unevenness, stray animals and unauthorised encroachment. Thomas D’Souza (a wheelchair user from Mumbai) reported finding it impossible to independently navigate a mere 100 meters on the Reti Bunder footpath, leading to the St Michael’s Church. An overwhelming majority of train stations around the country don’t have proper ramps. This restricts a wheelchair user from even entering the station. Similarly, travellers living with a visual disability are often unable to identify the bus number without assistance from non-disabled persons around them, explains Ketan Kothari – a blind man from Mumbai. Cases of discrimination and stigmatisation against PwDs in transport systems are well documented. Jeeja Ghosh, an activist, was once forcibly de-boarded from a flight for her disability – Cerebral Palsy.
As the government prepares to present the budget for 2021-22, measures for enabling safe,hygienic and reliable transportation for the future are expected to receive attention. Despite the urgency, today India cannot afford to take a utilitarian approach – building solutions for the majority at the expense of the vulnerable and the marginalised.
Earlier, when physical and digital infrastructure failed this community, social infrastructure helped to fill in the gaps. However, after COVID-19, wide cracks have appeared even in the social infrastructure. A July 2020 report published by Rising Flame and Sightsavers documents the challenges experienced by Indian women with disabilities during COVID lockdowns. For instance, a 35-year old deaf woman mentioned how she could not get reliable and timely information on mobility during the COVID-lockdowns as it wasn’t published in sign language. Participants with visual disabilities found various apps and websites for information, essential services, payment, etc. inaccessible. A 39-year old woman who uses crutches shared an instance when she slipped and fell down, nobody came forward to assist her for fear of COVID-19. There are multiple news reports about hate speech, stigmatisation and discrimination towards Persons with Disabilities on transport systems during the pandemic. Naturally then, PwDs feel excluded, anxious about receiving the necessary support and fearful for their safety whenever they step out of their house.
The COVID-19 pandemic has presented an opportunity to Build Back Better. However, “better” will be a misnomer if the new infrastructure disempowers over 10% of India’s human capital from accessing various socioeconomic opportunities. Therefore, Building Accessible, Safe, Inclusive Indian Cities and transportation must be prioritised by taking the following steps.
- All COVID-19 related transportation directives must accommodate the needs of Persons with Disabilities. For example, in the United Kingdom, the Government has exempted PwDs from wearing masks – especially where the nature of impairment makes wearing or removing masks difficult.
- Urban planners, transport operators, customer-facing transport staff and the police must be sensitized to the accessibility needs of Persons with Disabilities as well as be trained to support them
- Inclusion and universal accessibility must be Key Performance Indicators for transportation and urban development right from the planning stage.
- New transport operating models must be inclusive by design. Sufficient measures must be taken to ensure a dignified, safe, affordable and reliable transport experience for PwDs.
- Accessibility professionals and Persons with Disabilities must be included in teams responsible for planning and development of urban as well as transport infrastructure.
Investments in transport systems have a lasting impact across decades. A failure to create an accessible, safe, and inclusive infrastructure through the investments made today would handicap our future. As a country that aims for sabka sath, sabka vikas (together with all, development for all), India has the rare opportunity to start afresh and achieve universal accessibility. In the 72nd year of the republic, India can’t afford to squander this opportunity.
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