Founder and chairperson of the NGO Svayam, Sminu Jindal speaks to Nibedita Saha about why we need to treat accessibility as a matter of public interest and not merely as a disability-rights issue.

 

Q. Tell us about your “Accessibility for All” campaign?

A. Svayam started the campaign as a one-week Twitter initiative under the hashtag #Accessibility4All in 2016. It received an overwhelming response, with 9.9 million impressions and 2.1 million unique users reached. Famous personalities around the world supported the cause. Al Jazeera US featured our campaign on a special show on people with disabilities and later broadcast my interview. The campaign is still going strong and intends to highlight that accessibility isn’t limited to just people with disabilities; everyone requires accessibility at some point in their lives. People with reduced mobility, such as the elderly, patients, women (especially during pregnancy and early motherhood) and children—all benefit from accessible infrastructure and services. We are receiving overwhelming support on our social media handles for this campaign.

Q. The commonly held notion is that accessibility is an issue that has a bearing only on the lives of those who suffer from some physical disability.

A. That is a misconception. We often tend to relate accessibility with disability alone. Raising awareness is crucial to ending this perception. Doesn’t an injured or a sick young man or woman need an accessible toilet? Why do we see young people using elevators? Why do you feel comparatively comfortable while pulling your luggage on a ramp? Does a ramp only help a wheelchair user? All these are accessibility provisions which everyone needs.

If you look at the stats, India’s 65% population is under 35 years of age, which will further grow up to become seniors and older adults 30-40 years down the line, maintaining the same ratio, requiring aid in accessibility. Therefore accessibility is for all, and not for people with disabilities alone.

I think a more significant, sustained and robust awareness is needed to spread the message among the general public, as well as the policymakers and other stakeholders, that accessibility is for all, that it benefits everyone.

Q. Most of our cities do not have disabled-friendly or accessible schools, offices, colleges, transportation networks and even hospitals. How can this be fixed?

A. That is true. However, after the launch of the Accessible India Campaign (AIC), in December 2015, and the subsequent notification of the Rights of Persons with Disabilities Act 2016, accessibility in public infrastructure, including in the public transport system (both private and government-run) has been made mandatory. Now it is the government’s job to ensure accessibility at schools, colleges as well as in the transportation systems.

Accessible public transport is an essential part of everything as only making, say, the schools accessible won’t help. The child also has to get to school. To raise awareness of accessible school transportation, Svayam translated into Hindi and published an international research report, “Bridging the Gap: Your Role in Transporting Children with Disabilities to School in Developing Countries”, by the Access Exchange International, USA. It has case studies and examples taken from many developing countries which can help stakeholders in providing economically feasible, comfortable, safe and accessible transportation facilities to schoolchildren with disabilities.

Q. What inspired you to become an advocate for the cause of accessibility?

A. There are streams of events that encouraged me to take up the cause. I met with an accident when I was 11 and have been in a wheelchair ever since. However, I have never thought of it as a limitation, and my parents supported me through it all, ensuring I got proper school and college education. But I realised way too soon that the facilities and provisions I had might not be available in other educational institutions. Therefore, I decided to do something about accessibility and to raise this issue in all corners of the country. It became my calling.

Founded in 2000, Svayam was initially a platform to disseminate information on government laws, schemes, rights, etc. But our journey was not a cake-walk. When I started Svayam, people dissuaded me by saying, “India is a country of poor people where it is hard to arrange roti (bread) and you are talking about ramp.” I had already decided to prove them wrong and was ready to face every obstacle, since I knew in my heart that accessibility was a game-changer. The first significant achievement of Svayam was when it, along with the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) made the World Heritage Site Qutub Minar in Delhi accessible for visitors with reduced mobility. But it was not as easy as it may sound. It took umpteen meetings to convince the authorities and carry forward the project.

Making policymakers realise the necessity of accessibility is as challenging as raising awareness and sensitising people. But it gives me immense hope as more and more people support our initiative and are making it a global movement every passing day.

Q. People in some of India’s big cities are becoming more aware of accessibility and even the authorities are beginning to act. But what about rural India? Does accessibility figure anywhere on our agenda for rural development?

A. It is indeed true that rural India is still untouched in terms of accessibility… India is 70% rural, and therefore, accessibility can’t be limited to cities alone. To raise awareness of accessibility and promote accessible family sanitation in rural India, Svayam has partnered with water.org to help build 1,500 accessible family toilets in villages across five states, namely Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, Maharashtra, Uttar Pradesh and Odisha. The three-year project, which began in 2018 and will go on till 2021, will present a success story which could then be replicated in other states.

Lack of awareness in rural India is a serious issue. We need to raise awareness of the fact that accessibility can be easy and cost-effective, and accordingly construct new infrastructure or retrofit the existing one using indigenous materials and techniques. I hope our project will set an example for other states to emulate.

Q. Have you noticed any significant shift in the way the general public in India has come to think about accessibility?

A. There has been a significant paradigm shift in the attitude of people. They are open to diversity and inclusion more than when had I started Svayam, thanks to sustained awareness drives, as well as the voices of stakeholders and the government’s Accessible India Campaign.

People are showing up and demanding provisions to make places accessible for all and other such facilities in public areas. Once you taste the fruit of accessibility, it starts making more sense to everyone. It begins to seem like the necessity that it is, providing everyone with safety, ease of living and dignity.

Q. What is your vision for the next five years in terms of building a more accessible India?

A. Equal opportunity can only exist with uninterrupted mobility. In the next five years, we will pursue the demand for accessibility on the policy level more robustly to ensure our built infrastructure, as well as transportation systems, become accessible for all everywhere.

Recently, we have launched #YahanSeWahanTak, a movement to create a nation where all Indians have uninterrupted access to mobility. With this initiative and many more, the journey will continue with greater vigour. We would need everyone’s support on this path we are paving for equal accessibility for all, as it affects everyone.

 

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