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Meet the petitioners behind a citywide campaign to make Mumbai accessible for people with disabilities

Accessible infrastructure or rather the lack of it in Mumbai is under scanner like never before after two petitions in the Bombay High Court highlighted the abysmal lack of wheelchair access and other facilities for disabled people. Even better, this has triggered a larger awareness campaign that is bringing together disabled people and senior citizens from across Mumbai. That's our focus on #StoryOfTheWeek.

" I am a physically challenged person with 86% disability in the lower right limb. Due to one of my brothers filing at least 8 cases I have to appear in different courts".

"Toilets for differently-abled people are not there for instance in the Esplanade and City Civil Court or it is in one distant corner as is the case in the Small Causes which is under renovation".

" In the City Civil Court matters of the senior citizens have been transferred to court room no. 7 which is in the barrack. There are no ramps for going to the barrack from the main building and there are no hand bars built with the ramps".

These are just some of the letters lawyer-activist Abha Singh and columnist, social entrepreneur and TV anchor Nisha Jamvwal have been getting since they filed their petitions in the Bombay High Court seeking wheelchair access and other facilities for people with disabilities in buildings across Mumbai, like five star hotels, malls, and other commercial premises.

Taking note of their petition, the court has directed the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) to give approvals to commercial buildings only after they have incorporated facilities for disabled people. This order has turned a much-needed spotlight on just how inaccessible the financial capital is.

Singh and Jamvwal presented to the court a list of 15 prominent landmarks including Oberoi Hotel in Nariman Point and the National Gallery of Modern Art (NGMA) which lacked facilities like ramps and disabled-friendly toilets. They also said that all such establishments and toilets must have doors that are at least 30 inches wide to let wheelchairs go through with ease.

Impact visible

The impact is being felt on the ground. After the court ordered the BMC to conduct a site inspection of these 15 buildings, Tamasha, a popular south Mumbai restaurant built a ramp as has the Nehru Centre in Worli, both with the correct dimensions. The NGMA now has a toilet for people with disabilities and will have a ramp in 10 days.

It was, says Singh, a question of implementing a law that already existed.

The law says clearly that occupation certificate and other clearances cannot be given by the BMC if a building is not accessible. This is binding as per law as I argued in court. The court told the BMC to send an engineer from the Building Proposal Department to inspect the 15 sites Nisha and I had mentioned. The BMC was reluctant at first and the court pulled them up for that. - Abha Singh, Lawyer-Activist

Even more heartening is the response coming from other parts of Mumbai, like Bandra and distant suburbs like Virar. "People will now realise there's a law for them", says Singh. "There are many people with disabilities and senior citizens connecting with us and we want more to reach out. The aim is to incorporate accessibility provisions in the Rights of Persons with Disabilities Act everywhere.

"Our attempt is to push for public accessible restrooms, special handicap parking , accessibility at entertainment spaces like cinemas, restaurants and hotels", says co-petitioner Nisha Jamvwal. "We wish to amend policy through government lobbying to change legislation and make wheelchair accessibility in public spaces mandatory all over India, even in villages so that all new construction and infrastructure incorporate accessibility".

Going ahead, Jamvwal and Singh plan to push for voting machines in Braille too.

"When I see the lives people with disabilities lead abroad and what they lead here, it is shocking", says Singh. But it will be a tough battle as the petitioners have experienced.

In my last apartment block, among the affluent of Bombay, I had to fight my entire building society alone because they were too insensitive to understand that a wheelchair person might need to use the lift as priority", says Jamvwal. "They were aggressive and outraged and insisted on 'first come first serve' very self-righteously".

If you have an accessibility-related issue you would like to raise, you can contact Abha Singh at abhasinghadvocate@gmail.com

Also Read: Bombay High Court gaze on accessibility shortfalls puts civic authorities in a spot

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