How does Inaccessible Environment transform impairment into a disability?
Article 1 of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UNCRPD, 2006) defines “Persons with disabilities as those who have long-term physical, mental, intellectual, or sensory impairments which in interaction with various barriers may hinder their full and effective participation in the society on an equal basis with others”. This is a comprehensive definition that clearly gives the reader an idea that there is a difference between the terms disability and impairment. While as an impairment has been defined as “lacking part or all of a limb, or having a defective limb, organism or mechanism of the body, a disability has been defined as the disadvantage or restriction of activity caused by contemporary social organisations which takes little or no account of people who have physical impairments, and thus excludes them from the mainstream of social activities”.
To put it in more simple terms, impairment is transformed into a disability because of the barriers and the inaccessible environments. These barriers can be categorized as physical, social, cultural or even attitudinal and these environments can be in the form of inaccessible buildings, roads, parks, transportation, schools, offices and so on. It is not only limited to the physical barriers as discussed above, but also to the electronic services, information and communication. The list can go on and can be related to any other area that comes to our mind.
Now, it needs to be made clear that how do these barriers and inaccessible environments transform impairment into a disability. Here we need to ask some important questions to ourselves. How many times have we come across a person with a physical impairment travelling on his own? How many times have we seen a person with a visual or sensory impairment standing next to us for shopping in a departmental store, or depositing money in a bank? If a person with any form of impairment wants to go to any place by himself, can he go? This can be any regular place that people without impairments (“non-disabled” world, as we are generally called) go on a daily basis. It can be a school, a religious place, any office or even a shop per se.
This may be exemplified by an observation that we are witnessing a mushrooming of food cafes in Kashmir, particularly in Srinagar. After every few steps we take we come across a cafe, a food court, or a restaurant. But how many of them have ramps, wider walkways, accessible toilets, sign language boards and safe-crossings? It can be generalized that almost all of them are inaccessible to persons with disabilities. It is because the non-disabled world holds a ubiquitous view regarding them. The persistent culture of pity and anecdotal evidences have led us to assume that they don’t want to socialize or are even not interested in moving out and even in some cases no one includes them in the list.
Let me now take this discourse to some essential services. These may include some important government offices, universities, colleges or even visiting banks. Usually most of the banks here are either located in the first or in the second floor and the ones that are in the ground floor have narrow walkways. They also don’t have any sign boards and means that could facilitate the process for them. If we take a look at our government buildings, then it is needless to say that we can count them in the most inaccessible places for persons with disabilities. The Civil Secretariat and the Old Secretariat tops the list of most disabled unfriendly buildings and also buildings like District Social Welfare Offices, Deputy Commissioner’s office, office of the Director CAPD are counted among the most inaccessible buildings in the State (Greater Kashmir: 16-07-2018).
We have provisions in the relevant acts and legislations that have discussed the issue of accessibility. Article 9 of the UNCRPD is totally dedicated to the issue of accessibility for them and clearly mentions that persons with disabilities should be enabled to live “independently and participate fully in all aspects of life”, and the “State Parties shall take appropriate measures to ensure to persons with disabilities have access, on an equal basis with others”.
The Jammu and Kashmir Rights of Persons with Disabilities Bill, 2018 has kept relevant provisions that have given the issue of accessibility and inclusion a due consideration. Also, the Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment, Govt. of India, has released Rs 5.09 crores Grant-in Aid, as the first installment to the State of J&K under ‘Accessible India Campaign’. It has been released to create a barrier-free environment in 11 State government buildings for the benefit of Persons with Disabilities (Kashmir Life: 02-01-2019). Although we have relevant Acts, and Provisions that call for the inclusion of persons with disabilities in every sphere of life, but as is the case with other systems, it has been limited to papers only. Also, the society at large cannot be insensitive to their needs.
Accessibility has to be understood as a very important issue which we must be able to provide them with. It will directly facilitate their inclusion and independence. Persons with disabilities experience exclusion from everyday life activities. The basic services are rendered inaccessible to them because of our prejudices and stereotypes. These may look like minor issues but it is time to reflect.
(Author is a Research Scholar, Dept of Social Work, KU)