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The invisible people in India’s smartest cities

The invisible people in India’s smartest cities

Why our facilities need to be made disabled- and elderly-friendly through thoughtful design

It was one of those days after you get a new job and you are full of zeal to reach your workplace. I have always been a sucker for time and it was my second day at work. I was zipping through the stairs when I stepped on to something greasy. The next thing I knew, I was flying down a flight of stairs. At the rate I was propelled it will always remain a mystery. I landed on concrete with the full force on my right ankle. When I was taken to the hospital pretty soon everything turned into a nightmare. The doctor told me I would need surgery to fix my ankle. Initially I thought he probably looked at the wrong X-ray. But when I saw the X-ray, the ankle had been smashed like an egg. The pain was so excruciating I willingly surrendered to the doctor, to cut me open and fix it.

I was expecting that the surgery would enable me to walk at the earliest. Well, I was painfully proven wrong. I came out of the surgery with this set of horrible rods poking out of my leg, called external fixators. The journey after the surgery is one you would certainly like to avoid. I was suddenly learning to grapple with the reality of vegging out in bed the whole day.

After six weeks, once the fixators were removed, I was asked to be on non-weight bearing. It sounded like a dead-end for my career. Fortunately, I had a very supportive workplace and they kept me on paid leave. After 12 weeks I begged to the doctor that I needed to go back to work. Well, I had to do whatever was necessary to get me going. I hopped up and down the stairs daily on one foot and took a cab to work. I slowly learned to balance myself hopping on one foot with my crutches.

I realised that from being an able-bodied person I was becoming disabled. The only world I saw was the view from the cab on my way to work. There was so much of swelling and pain in my leg that even the slightest wind blowing in my ankle would hurt miserably. I was beginning to get disillusioned because I was trapped inside my house. My friends offered to drive me around and to take me out. However, to add to the despair, my apartment, which was on the first floor, had no wheelchair-friendly provision (most Indian houses don’t have them). The fanciest restaurants in town lacked ramps, disabled-friendly washrooms or reading accessibility. Even vital social amenities such as banks and shopping arcades were inaccessible to the differently abled. A hostage to my disability, I was forced to depend on family for my daily necessities. The brazen indifference to the needs of the disabled in our cities exaggerated my pain.

Most people wouldn’t understand, and tell me there is a small step and you just have to cross it. But how do I cross that small step which looked like Mount Everest to me at that point? I was very weak and feeble and even a slight jerk would hurt my ankle. Besides, I was no professional acrobat who could balance on one foot with the crutches. So, despite the best intentions of my friends and loved ones, I couldn’t step out. I remained in solitary confinement like a prisoner in my room.

Mental trauma

I started becoming very irritable and my state of mind was deplorable. The mental trauma that I had to go through was much worse than my physical agony. I felt my dignity completely being crushed because I was no longer able to do things on my own. I was strong enough to fight my physical challenges but I was ill-equipped to deal with my constant mental battles. The inability to socialise due to lack of accessibility of places where I could step out was slowly showing on my face. I was fuelled with anger when I realised that I was one among the many who were not taken into consideration while building some of the smartest cities. Can the government, the administration, the city planners, the architects and the engineers be so oblivious to the needs of the disabled? I soon came to terms with the fact that large metropolitan cities and urban agglomerations like the one I inhabit are the worst offenders.

After three months of walking on crutches and physical therapy the worse was yet to come. Doctors break the news that I would need another surgery. My bone was not yet in the right position and they had to do a corrective surgery.

During this moment of desperation, I wanted to go knocking at the doors of the Almighty. To my surprise, even in the house of god where everyone is supposed to be treated equally, I didn’t feel welcome. The most beautiful temples, churches and other holy places lacked wheel chair ramps, elevators, walkway contours or even support rails. To have a rendezvous with god, I was summoned to climb up the longest stairs. The tradition so far has been that, to prove that if I am a true devotee I should be able to climb the stairs. I was appalled by this inhuman thought because I know god is kind and we might as well keep him out of the equation.

After my second surgery finally I was able to walk without any assistive aid. It took me one complete year to get back on my feet. Well, I am one of those lucky souls who did manage to live through a life-changing tragedy. But what about the rest who have had to go through the horror of amputation(s) or been inflicted with visual, hearing or mobility impairments?

Inhuman forms

I refuse to be part of such contorted and inhuman forms of development in our modern cities. It seems we have run out of land accommodating our ever-widening highways for cars and our humongous malls and hotels. We have invested our technology, energy and money only for the fit and abled in our cities. As the city expands, the price of land increases manifold and disabled-friendly infrastructure seem like waste of salable space for the profit-mongers. Who wants to spend money on bigger washrooms, ramps, tactile flooring, wider parking spaces, wheelchair and stretcher-friendly elevators, when you could utilise the area for a couple of more shops? To add to it, the government has turned a blind eye.

About 15% of the world's population lives with some form of disability, of whom 2%-4% experience significant difficulties in functioning (WHO). As per the latest Census (2011) there are approximately 26.8 million people with some form of disability in vision, hearing, speech and movement. Add to that the 104 million senior citizens in the country and we will have almost 10.8% of the total population of the country who could benefit from more inclusive city and building designs. That’s one in every 10 people in the country who are deprived of independent lives because of the way our cities are designed.

The United Nations predicts that as the country ages, the percentage of senior citizens will rise from 8 to 19 by 2050, further aggravating the situation. It is easily established that our administration and our design engineers are overlooking the needs of a significant part of our population while planning our cities. It is about time we moved towards planning more inclusive cities, if indeed we wish to make them smart.

For Universal Design

It is about time our designs were made universal. Loosely defined, Universal Design is a principle of sensitively designing our built environment to fit the requirements of all people regardless of their age, size, ability or disability. The National Disability Authority of Ireland beautifully defined Universal Design, not as special design requirement but a fundamental condition of good design. Our footpaths and buildings need ramps so citizens on wheelchairs and crutches can commute independently, our buses need to be low-floor so the elderly can alight easily, our washrooms need adequate grab bars, our interior doors need to be wider, our museums and banks and hospitals need visual and audio aids like Braille and audio books. Even our website designs need to be tailored according to universal design principles. Above all, our intentions and attitudes towards what is a smart city need to change. Smartness is universal.

This article was written by Rebika Laishram, development communication specialist and Ipsita Shee, an architect and city planner. rebika(xmsDot)laishram(xmsAt)gmail(xmsDot)com 

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