Accessibility for disabled people still a long way off – Padma Shri S Ramakrishnan to NewzHook
S Ramakrishnan, Founder-Director of Tamil Nadu-based NGO Amar Seva Sangam is among the two disabled social workers to be awarded the prestigious Padma Shri for 2020 by the Centre. In an interview to NewzHook, Mr Ramakrishnan shares his plans and what winning India’s fourth highest civilian honour means to him.
S Ramakrishnan was 20 years old and studying mechanical engineering at the Government College of Technology, Coimbatore when he was disabled.
“I was in my fourth year of mechanical engineering and wanted to join the Indian Navy, recalls the 65-year-old social worker. “I had gone for a selection interview for naval officers and injured my neck while doing a physical test”. Ramakrishnan damaged his spine and lost sensation below his neck. “I underwent treatment initially at the Air Force Command Hospital in Bengaluru and was later shifted to the Military Hospital, in Khadki, Pune”.
Inspiration behind Amar Seva Sangam
At Pune, Ramakrishnan underwent rehabilitation for 10 months under orthopaedic physician Air Marshall Dr. Amarjit Singh Chahal, who motivated me. “In 1981, when I started Amar Seva Sangam in Ayikudi, Tamil Nadu, I named it after him”, says Ramakrishnan.
Amar Seva Sangam started as a school for disabled kids on a piece of land donated by Ramakrishnan’s parents. From the beginning, the focus was on disabled people.
We went door to door and saw firsthand the kind of suffering disabled people in rural areas were experiencing. That led us to focus on villages and today we have a presence in remote Tamil Nadu. We address the problems disabled people and their families face. – S Ramakrishnan, Founder-Director, Amar Seva Sangam
At that time, awareness was poor. Things actually started changing with the passing of the Persons with Disabilities Act, 1995. “It was then that the government started taking note of the issues faced by disabled people”. But there is a long way to go. “Even today, facilities like ramps and low platform buses are not provided. This is the case even in Delhi. This means wheelchair users cannot move around independently”. When there are such buses at airports, why can’t they be provided to everyone? – S Ramakrishnan, Founder-Director, Amar Seva Sangam
The Padma Shri award, he believes, is an acknowledgement of the growing presence of the disabled community. Ramakrishnan hopes that the award will lead to greater government support.
Amar Seva Sangam works closely with Tamil Nadu government
“Amar Seva Sangam has been working in many villages and the Tamil Nadu government has accepted our way of doing this. They have given us ₹ 2.36 crore for expanding activities to 23 blocks in the state”. Ramakrishnan plans to scale the early intervention programmes. Part of this includes going door to door to peoples’ homes and teaching them how to look after their disabled kids, conducting police camps, etc”.
He credits his wife and secretary Shankar Raman for Amar Seva Sangam’s considerable presence today. “My wife has helped develop the activities tremendously. Shankar Raman is a chartered accountant and is also affected with muscular dystrophy. He has also helped us expand the nature of our work.”
Going ahead, Raman hopes to see greater initiative taken by the state government. “We hope to see the disability commissioner being given magistrate-level powers as the Rights of Persons with Disabilities Act 2016 stipulates. Also schooling for disabled kids in private schools has to be improved. Accessibility remains a challenge. We also need to address the lack of awareness about many disabilities”.