Infrastructure: How to Think ‘Inclusive’ly

By Revathi Sampath Kumaran*

“It’s a total of five kilometers. I’ve walked three, there are another two to go. Once I reach the highway, it’ll take me thirty minutes to cross over and another thirty to go back … We’ve given petitions to the government. We’ve asked the authorities to shift the ration shop. But all they do is make us run around.”

– A blind woman, resident of a village in Trichy district, Tamil Nadu, quoted In ‘A blinding road to fill one’s plate’ by Margaret Joeji, in India Unheard (July 27, 2011).

Anita Tai is a 30 something woman living alone in the town of Vangani in the outlier districts of the city of Mumbai. Anita was born blind … A few years ago, when Anita was making her way across the railway tracks to the platform to board her daily train, she lost her balance, slipped and fell. An arriving train ran over her hand … [Vangani town has 350 disabled people. There is no foot-over bridge to safely access the platform]

– From ‘Indian Railways blind to disability’ by Amol Lalzare in India Unheard (October 22, 2012).

Indian towns and cities are not among the best of places to ride a limousine, or even to even simply take a walk. Thoroughfares are chaotic, pedestrian/ zebra crossing do not assure a safe crossover, speed breakers are unscientific and footpaths are often non-existent or discontinuous at best. Add to this the poor road/ civic sense of the public at large, and you can imagine the seemingly insurmountable odds that road users, and especially those like the blind women featured in the extracts that introduce this article have to face every day.

But it is not only the roads and related infrastructure that are mismanaged.  Transport facilities and vehicles, public utilities such as post offices and police stations, and service providers and offices across all sectors are littered with non-functional or poorly designed gadgets, implements and devices. The non-disabled public at all levels is also either ignorant or insensitive to the real and felt needs of persons with disabilities. As Dr. Gaurav Raheja of IIT Roorkee observed at the recently concluded TRANSED conference, ‘…the disablement process is not just a cause of individual physical limitations but is a consequence of complex interactions between physical, social and institutional parameters within the environment, we live in’.

The situation is further complicated by the fact that India is on a dizzying development trajectory with major demands on urban connectivity, while at the same time more than 70% of its 1.2 billion population continue to live in villages, many of them remote. Since resources are a constraint, and the demands on social spending many, accessibility considerations are often not even deliberated upon.  Interestingly, Dr. Helena Svenson, in her presentation about public transport in Sweden, observed: ‘Although Sweden is known to be a country that has come far when it comes to accessibility … vehicles in urban public transport are more accessible than those in rural public transport’.

To take stock of the existing scenario, and to provoke designers, policy-makers and the public to think in terms of access for all, and for people with disabilities in particular, TRANSED 2012, held in New Delhi recently, brought together  participants from nations across all continents. In this article we will re-visit some of the discussions that took place at this global meet on mobility and transport for elderly and disabled persons.

Multi-site accessibility studies have also been conducted across various cities and sectors in India by several organizations. This article will also give an overview of some of the salient points made by a few such studies.  The question that this article seeks to address is: What is the message that needs to be read by planners and policy makers concerned with the infrastructural requirements of the nation? This becomes a particularly important concern if the country is to join an increasingly sensitized and responsive global community.

Let us begin by understanding what the term infrastructure means.

 What is infrastructure?

Infrastructure could be defined as the physical structures that provide for commutation and communication, the buildings and facilities that provide interlinkages between these various structures, and the objects and services that facilitate the interface between them and their users. So, infrastructure is an umbrella term for many physical structures and services. If the interlinkages and interfaces are operational, you can say ‘the infrastructure is in place’. But if the infrastructure is not maintained or it cannot be used by many because it is not accessible for reasons of reach, expense and/ or ability, such infrastructure can only be considered dysfunctional that is, ‘characterized by a breakdown of normal or beneficial relationships between members of the group‘ (thefreedictionary.com).

Such breakdown obviously has immeasurable negative consequences for the group, which in this case happens to be the world of human beings. ‘Striving to ensure that all people can continue to live an active and independent lifestyle places many demands … and presents many challenges … However, it also presents very real opportunities’, observed Mr. Steven Fletcher, Canadian minister of state for transport, in his message to TRANSED 2012.

 Defining ‘Universal Access’

Accessible Transportation Around the World, the newsletter of Access Exchange International, explains the concept of universal access thus:

[T]here is a tendency to equate “accessibility” primarily with persons with visible disabilities, and especially with those using wheelchairs. Yes, public transit that is “wheelchair accessible” is probably accessible for most other persons with disabilities as well. After all, frail seniors and lots of other passengers cannot use a bus if their access is blocked by stairs or by a large gap between the station platform and the bus floor! But it is not accessible for a tourist if there are no route maps. It may not be accessible for people arriving from rural areas, or others new to the city, unless access features include travel information in order to navigate the system. And it is not inclusive for someone with low vision if there are no audio announcements, nor for a passenger who is deaf, deafened, or hard of hearing unless there is text signage.

This narrative fits in neatly with the principles of universal access, which lay stress on flexibility and simplicity besides equitable use by people with diverse abilities. The concept is considered to have been pioneered by Ronald L. Mace, 1941-1998, American architect, product designer and educator. India has its own Universal Design Principles based on the notions of:

Saman : The design is fair and non-discriminating to diverse users;

Sahaj : The design is operable by all users;

Sanskritik: The design respects the cultural past and the changing present;

Sasta : The design respects affordability and cost considerations for diverse users;

Sundar: The design employs aesthetics to promote social integration among users.

 Access for All and the Indian scenario: A mixed picture

 Discordant notes

The office of the CCPD on its website notes the discrepancy in the disability-wise figures of two of the nation’s important data resources: The National Sample Survey Organization and the Census of India. Since the government policies are formulated using both organizations’ data, this makes for a quaint situation. In the case of persons with visual disabilities, in particular, the differences are stark and a question naturally arises about the potential drawbacks of policies based on such figures. However, on the crucial point of population of persons with disabilities in rural areas, both estimates put the figure at around 75%.

Table with three columns giving disability-wise details from NSSO and Census (in lakhs and in %)

Disability

NSSO (2002)

Census (2001)

Locomotor 106.34(51.19%) 61.05 (27.86%)
Visual 28.26 (13.60%) 106.3 (48.54%)
Hearing 30.62 (14.74%) 12.62 (5.76%)
Speech 21.55 (10.37%) 16.41 (7.49%)
Mental 20.96 (10.09%) 22.64 (10.33%)
Total 207.73 (1.8) 219.02 (2.1%)

Source: http://www.ccdisabilities.nic.in

Civil society organization, Samarthyam, records that it found that ‘there are various codes, guidelines, manuals and standards issued by various central and state ministries leading to multiple standards to be adhered to for built environments, creating confusion among stakeholders and implementing agencies’. (Accessibility Research on Comparative Analysis of Building Bye-Laws of various states of India, 2010). Further, these documents were outdated, and needed revision, notes the report.

Samarthyam’s report effectively drives home the point about discrepant norms, using a succinct table in Annexure IV to compare the parameters for 32 design elements as per three statutes: the Central Public Works Department’s manual (1998), the Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment’s guidelines (2001), and the National Building Code (2005). The compared elements range from standards for placement of functional indoor facilities like door handles, windows, electric controls and toilets to design of walks and paths, ramps and  parking spaces. Norms are also outlined for installation of ATM and other vending machines. The recommendations, meant for architects and designers, cover offices, residences, and other public spaces and utilities such as railway stations, restaurants and parks.

 Delhi Metro: A Positive Step?

Audits of various locales, utilities, monuments and educational institutions in Delhi have been carried out, and their findings have done little to enhance the image of the country’s capital. ‘Delhi may claim to be a world-class city but it lacks basic disabled-friendly infrastructure’, reports a Samarthyam study of the city’s street infrastructure. To do this study, the organization engaged actual users and observed how they negotiated the city’s roads. Studies by other organizations, including by NCPEDP (National Centre for Promotion of Employment by Disabled People) reiterate this view. However, the Delhi Metro Rail Corporation (DMRC) initially bucked this trend, and scored high on disability audits by several organizations, including by NCPEDP. However, even the Metro seems to have slid back into complacency (See The Hindu, DNIS, interview with DMRC official). This only reiterates the need for constant vigil and monitoring, besides the importance of creating greater awareness about the long-term usefulness of thinking in terms of universal design. This was a strong message that came through in many of the presentations submitted at TRANSED 2012.

 TRANSED: International Conference on Mobility & Transport for Elderly and Disabled Persons

Prof. Gitam Tiwari, Chair of the scientific committee of the 13th TRANSED conference held in New Delhi between September 17 and 21, pointed out that ‘the importance of TRANSED has been growing over the years as cities and countries move towards making accessible environment for all’. Held once in three years, the conferences, the first of which was held in 1978 in England, initially concentrated on general issues and concerns that affect people with reduced mobility. The discussions since the third conference have focused around a theme. The theme this year was: ‘Seamless Access for All: Universal Design in Transport Systems and Built Infrastructure, a Key Element in the Creation of Livable Cities’.

The conference was brought to India this year by Delhi-based NGO Svayam. The government of Delhi and the ministry of tourism, Govt. of India supported the initiative, along with other Indian and foreign agencies, government departments and corporates. More than four hundred abstracts were received, from nearly 50 countries, and there were more than a hundred paper and poster presentations at the conference. Unfortunately, it is beyond the scope and capacity of this publication to give an overview of all the papers. What we have tried to do, however, is to capture the spirit of the conference and the prevailing mood of a world that is ready to think in terms of infrastructure for all. We do this by taking stock of some of the themes that framed the discussions and drawing insights from a few papers from the wealth of literature that emerged at the event.

 Table with brief introduction, followed by three columns tracing the chronology of TRANSED conferences

From a small, specialized meeting among a handful of researchers, the conference today has become a  major source for exchange and dissemination of knowledge and the key forum for scientific and philosophical advances in the pursuit of mobility and access for elderly and disabled people. The conference was initiated in the 1970s by Professor Norman Ashford University of Loughborough) and Professor William Bell University of Florida).

 

Year

 

Location

 

Conferences

1978 Cambridge, England Title “Mobility for the Elderly and Handicapped” No specific theme. Content concentrated on practical issues of service delivery, plus effects of mobility on lifestyles.
1981 Cambridge England Title “Mobility for Elderly and Handicapped Persons”. No specific theme. Content included methodology, concepts, technology and software, as well as operational experience in the field and evaluation.
1984 Orlando, Florida Title “Mobility and Transport for Elderly and Handicapped Persons”. No specific theme. Content covered policy, transportation systems modifications, legal rights of disabled people, international air travel and specialized transportation in developing countries.
1986 Vancouver, Canada Theme: “Mobility in the Global Village”
1989 Stockholm, Sweden Theme: “Towards Mobility as A Human Right”
1992 Lyon, France Theme: “From Human Rights to A Better Quality of Life”
1995 Reading, England Theme: “Ideas into Actions”
1998 Perth Australia Theme: “Setting the Pace”
2001 Warsaw, Poland Theme: “Towards Safety, Independence and Security”
2004 Hamamatsu, Japan Theme: ‘‘Accessible Transportation and Road Design: Strategies for Success”
2007 Montreal, Canada Theme: “Benchmarking, Evaluation and Vision for the Future”
2010 Hong Kong, China Theme: Sustainable Transport and Travel for All.
2012 New Delhi, India Theme: Seamless Access for All: Universal Design in Transport Systems and Built Infrastructure, a Key Element in the Creation of Livable Cities.

Source: Transed 2012 literature

 

Themes and world views

The papers and posters presented at TRANSED 2012 were woven around several themes, the most popular among which had to do with best practices and innovations in policies and legislations. A connected theme on implementation, monitoring and enforcement, which in fact is crucial for the policies to be transformative, did not have too many presenters. This might be an indication of the fact that the process of sensitization of governments around the globe has yet to take off in a big way though the UNCRPD’s impact on State policy is a clear indicator of greater change on the ground [For a brief overview of the UN convention held earlier this year, click here].

Another popular theme in TRANSED 2012 was ‘Potential of Technology in Accessibility for All’. This is a clear indicator that there is a growing awareness of the possibilities pregnant in the present Information Age. But inclusivity is not only about future dynamics. How do we make extant infrastructure, buildings and utilities more accessible? Svayam is itself engaged in major interventions in this regard. And, if the papers and posters presented at TRANSED 2012 are any indication, there is a growing commitment across the world to make existing places of tourist interest, including historical monuments more accessible to people with age-related and other disabilities.

A group from the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil’s School of Architecture has developed a methodology to make the museums in their country more accessible. They supplement their route footage videos with interviews of visitors with and without disabilities. The analysis of this acquired knowledge is expected to result in the development of guidelines for improved access on universal design lines to museums and cultural environments. India and Spain shared their experiences of working with heritage sites and cities. Like museums, these are sites of history and culture which must be made accessible to all, but unlike museums, the interventions in the monuments are extremely challenging as they have to balance the need to preserve the collective memory of a civilization while recognizing at the same time the rights of all citizens to a barrier free entry.

On the opposite side of the continuum of life, a paper was presented about a commercially viable, low-cost cell-phone based indoor navigation system that has been designed and piloted among blind users by researchers working with scientists from IIT Delhi’s Assistive Technologies Group. The institute also presented its findings from a survey among visually impaired users of public bus systems for whom it is an everyday struggle to independently navigate to their buses as they cannot read the route number, and are unsure about the physical location of the vehicle as well as its entrance/s. This survey has resulted in the design of a radi-frequency based, user-triggered bus identification and homing system that requires buses to be fitted with a low-cost module that will convey the requisite information to users who will have a corresponding hand-held device that they will operate.

Samarthyam, a civil society organization in New Delhi, shared their positive experience in educating about and enforcing standards of accessibility in Auroville, a self-contained township in south India. Through workshops, followed by audits and designing of an urban development strategy, Auroville is being helped to transform itself from a place that was difficult to negotiate into a settlement that is universally accessible: Access regulations are being implemented in all extant public buildings and apartment blocks by architects in the township who have spiritedly committed themselves to the task.

In keeping with the theme of the conference, papers were also presented based on research for making the world a more inclusive place for children and the elderly. A team from Central Road Research Institute, India, talked about design of barrier-free areas around schools, drawing on a study of schools in Delhi. A team from UK talked about the limitations imposed on the older population who have to cease driving due to age-related factors such as arthritis or failing eyesight; driving is considered an essential life skill in the western world. Inability to drive oneself hampers independent living, particularly when support services are inadequate to provide for people who have ceased driving. The presenter, a consultant with the forum of mobility centres, UK, recommended the formulation of a driving retirement plan to provide for a better quality of life for the older people who experienced an acute negative impact on their health and well-being because of their inability to drive due to age-related impairments.

The last word should go to Lorne Mackenzie of WestJet Airlines, Canada, who made a presentation about her organization’s employee training practices to handle with sensitivity the elderly and also persons with disabilities. In an approach that illustrates a holistic understanding of the concept of a truly barrier-free environment, she says the experience of a guest traveling by air would include everything, from o registration at the check-in counter to proceeding to the boarding area, boarding and deplaning, stowing and retrieving baggage, moving to and from an aircraft washroom and proceeding to the general public area or to a representative of another air carrier after arriving at a destination.  Best practice, according to her, is doing that which works, that which makes sense, or is simply the right thing to do. Governments, perhaps, could take a leaf out of this corporate’s ‘best practices’ book.

* This article was first published in January 2013 in Retina India’s online publication, InSight (Vol. 2.1)

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