India is home to the world’s largest differently-abled population, and yet, our government has made very limited efforts towards making their lives easier. In 2001, Stephen Hawking laid bare just how invisible we’ve rendered this section of the Indian population when he announced his desire to visit the Taj Mahal, Red Fort, Humayun’s Tomb, Jantar Mantar, and Qutub Minar—only to realise that none of these places are accessible for the differently-abled. Not only is it shocking, but also embarrassing, considering that the Persons with Disabilities (PwD) Act was passed in 1995. Six years later and not a single thing had been done about it. Finally, the Archaeological Survey of India stepped in to take responsibility and built ramps overnight.
Despite their disabilities, differently-abled Indians are—and must be included as—a part of mainstream society. And as’ve suggested in our interview with Divyanshu Ganatra, blind psychologist, disability rights advocate and paraglider, it’s less about ‘helping’ this community of people so much as it is about empowering them to take their lives into their own hands and make choices for themselves. This includes increasing their mobility through public transport facilities and much, much more. If India wants to be taken seriously on the global stage and is keen to be a major influencer, but it cannot even provide for its citizens, we definitely have a long way to go when early every large, important city in the West is disabled-friendly.
Still, perhaps things are finally changing. Mysuru Railway station has just become India’s first visually impaired-friendly station and it looks more promising than ever.
“Sympathising with blind people is like wanting them to depend on you for longer and that is a sadistic mentality. Instead, we should work on how to make them feel independent,” says 27-year-old Pancham Cajla, founder of Anuprayaas, the non-government organisation that is working to make India’s first blind-friendly railway station.
With help from south-western railway officials, Pancham Cajla and five of his friends started their work about a month ago and on November 3, the team inaugurated Phase I of the project. They have installed tactile maps of the station that will act as indicators of the physical layout of the station—describing the location and distance of entrances, platforms, counters, and washrooms, and the schedule of trains, making it extremely accessible for blind commuters. They have used different construction materials to indicate that a dead-end is approaching. And the authorities have also put up 400 metal signages in Braille along the railings of the staircases leading to various platforms. The signage is such that it tells people where they are, which side to turn and the number of steps to take before they can reach a help desk. And to top it all off, the menu cards at the canteen and food plaza at the station will also be available in Braille.
“This is still in the trial stage, but it has been a success so far. As a part of phase I, we are still working on making Braille labels for amenities like gents waiting rooms, ladies washroom etc.,” says Pancham. Throughout the testing period, they had many visually impaired persons come and test the features. “The first time I went to the railway station after Anuprayaas had the braille signs installed, I found it confusing. But after spending some time I could figure out the instructions. The next time I go I am sure I will not have to ask another person for information. I hope they improve on the facilities,” said Divakar, a visually impaired II pre-university student, and an athlete.
In phase II of the project, which is expected to take a few months to finish, the NGO is planning to digitalise the tactile map. They also plan to make the station more disabled-friendly by introducing battery cars. “We keep talking about digital India, but we don’t talk about accessible India. With the help of technology, we can make every place accessible to people with any kind of disability. We are working how to use technology that is available abroad and install it here,” said Pancham.
Of course, this is only one instance and we have a long way to go before we can call India a disabled-friendly country, but this could be the start of something big. Kudos to this team for pulling out something that our elected governments have not managed to achieve in over 60 years.
Words: Krupa Joseph