Working towards a disabled-friendly India

Souvik Dutta/Shouvik K Majumdar | Updated on: Sep 25, 2018

Providing access: Cities must be planned with the disabled in mind | Photo Credit: G_P_Sampath_Kumar.

Smart City projects must be aligned to the needs of the disabled and also linked to the Start-up India initiative

India has around 80 million people with disability, which may be age related, accident related or due to some medical conditions. According to the Word Bank, one in every 12 households in India has a person living with disability.

The Indian policy-makers are aware of the issue and Rights of Persons with Disabilities Act, 2016, tried to address some of the concerns faced by differently-abled persons in India. The Act specifically refers to ease of access to public or private buildings, workplaces, commercial activities, public utilities, religious, cultural, leisure or recreational activities, medical or health services, law enforcement agencies, transport infrastructure, among others.

The government’s Smart Cities Mission offers a great opportunity to ensure inclusion and participation of persons with disabilities in workplace, neighbourhood activities and in social life.

The objectives of the Smart City Mission for persons with disabilities are to: (a) ensure access to pathways, junctions, footpaths, bus shelters, crossings and public transportation; (b) create accessible websites, applications, government portals or community engagement platforms; (c) create accessible digital technology for websites, mobile applications, products and services and; (d) design accessible buildings, parks, playgrounds, schools, colleges, hospitals, recreational areas, public toilets, etc.

In 2015, the Prime Minister rolled out the “Accessible India” (Sugamya Bharat Abhiyan) campaign, with a motive to make it convenient for persons with disabilities to access administrative buildings and transport, among other things. The campaign has been launched in seven States including Delhi and Haryana. The government is committed towards socio-economic transformation (Swavlamban), of the persons with disability by year 2020 and in this context, India can learn from the global best practices and some of the initiatives taken by start-ups within the country.

A number of technology-based initiatives have been taken in other countries to ensure inclusion and participation of persons with disabilities in work and social life. There are location-based technologies that offer real-time support for users with disabilities in many cities. Microsoft has created a “Smart Cities for All Toolkit”, which contains four tools to help smart cities worldwide to focus on ICT accessibility and the digital inclusion of persons with disabilities and older persons. Sydney (Australia) is currently rolling out one of the world’s most comprehensive network of Braille and tactile signs to help visually impaired pedestrians.

Customising tech

While India can bring home some of these technologies or develop its own technologies customised to the need of the people, there are hardly any studies to identify the need at a micro level. Unless, that is done, Smart City projects and “Accessible India” initiative may not achieve the desired objectives with risks of mis-allocation as well as mis-utilisation of funds.

A recent pilot study in East Delhi by two ethnographic researchers, Arnab Bose and Seema Sharma, along with their students revealed a number of fundamental design thinking issues. For example, the heights of the bus stands are more than the heights of the buses. The buses do not stop at designated areas close to the bus stop — there are no markers. The top of the wheelchair access ramp is blocked by advertisement boards. Similar ethnography mismatches are also seen in places where disabled persons find it difficult to cross roads where foot over bridges do not have elevators or ramps. A disabled person cannot access the police station opposite Vivekananda college in East Delhi simply because there is a drain in front of the police station and the person has to jump across the drain.

While these may look like minor issues and can be addressed easily, this has not been the case because addressing them requires funding, identification of the problem, project prioritisation and holistic thinking.

For example, while low floor buses are a good initiative, not taking into account the height of the bus stand is a major oversight. Such oversights happen when good initiatives are taken without research.

Bose and Sharma have designed a community APP — SeenAb — through which they collect real-time data based on structured questionnaires on the issues faced by disabled persons in the neighbourhood in accessing public infrastructure. Data science and analytics tools are then used by engineering students, technologists and economists to analyse the responses and prioritise the requirements. The State government and municipalities can then allocate funds accordingly.

Such studies will not only help to save millions of tax payer’s money and have a disabled-friendly city planning, it will also help product manufacturing companies and service providers to customise products for requirements of disabled persons. The government should, therefore, engage with such innovative start-ups to help prioritise “Smart City” projects which are directly beneficial to the aged and disabled population.

Funding CSR projects

Companies such as Royal Bank of Scotland, which has announced that they would fund disability related initiatives under their CSR funding in India, can invest in such projects to support the cause for disability under Smart City Mission.

While local government may have limited funds, awareness among local governments is rising. For instance, the South Delhi Municipal Corporation has already selected around 15 parks to put in place acupressure walking tracks, clay tracks, rubberised track etc., to cushion against the arthritic limb pains and other mobility related discomforts.

Aged people found it difficult to walk in the pathways that had tiles as it increases the knee and joint pains. Further, it is difficult to drag a wheelchair through disjointed tiles.

Many organisations like the IITs and private sector companies have recycled plastic waste (such as water bottles) into components of road construction materials and these are being prototyped on a small scale.

However, there is need for more work to see if such technologies can help to scale up and accelerate road building which are disabled-friendly.

The SeenAb APP has created a community engagement platform with an emergency button, which helps the police, local hospitals and clinics and community workers (for example, guards) to respond fast to the needs of the disabled person. However, such initiatives cannot scale up unless there is government support in the initial phase of the survey and product development.

To make Smart City Mission successful our Smart City projects must be aligned to the needs of its disabled residents and for this, government bodies such as Department of Empowerment of Persons with Disabilities (DEPwD), and industry (through their CSR funding) should proactively support innovative initiatives of academics and technocrats.

More importantly, the Smart City initiatives must be aligned with the Startup India initiative. The pre-requisites for bidding for the Smart City tenders require companies with certain scale which may make it impossible for innovators and startups to contribute to these programmes of work. If the cities identified under the Prime Minister’s “Accessible India” campaign can open it out and involve startups that have specialised in ethnographic thinking, social awareness and empathy, it can really make a difference to the lives of the disabled.

Dutta is Assistant Professor, Indian Institute of Management-Bangalore and Majumdar is Director, Vantedge Global Solutions. Views expressed are personal.

Published on September 25, 2018
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