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The path to accessible cities

Tue, 07/31/2012 - 09:50 -- admin

Built environments are a result of conscious, meditated effort on the part of architects, designers, engineers and the people who fund the structures. If we say that our cities are planned, then the problems faced by visually impaired people are also planned. What will it take to make our cities accessible to visually impaired persons? Salil Chaturvedi explores

The most vital aspect in designing accessible cities is an awareness of how persons with visual impairments interact with built spaces. Rohit Trivedi of Arushi, a Bhopal-based N.G.O. working in the field of accessibility, feels "A lack of sensitivity and awareness of the needs of people with blindness or low vision is the biggest deterrent to having accessible cities."

Anjlee Agarwal, Founder and Executive Director of Samarthya in Delhi, feels that accessible cities are possible when attitudes are altered and one way of doing that is by forming user groups which can intervene and advise architects and builders about the requirements of visually impaired persons. Her organisation has played such a role for the Delhi Metro Rail Corporation (D.M.R.C.) giving its officials feedback on accessibility features.

The D.M.R.C. has successfully adopted accessible design standards to improve the experience of visually impaired passengers. The stations are equipped with standardised guiding tiles, Braille buttons in lifts and announcements in lifts and trains. Says Tripta Khanna, Chief Architect, "When I joined D.M.R.C., I had worked on the C.P.W.D. guidelines for accessible architecture. We used the guidelines and a little common sense to make our stations accessible. We provided the facilities at the Welcome station, and consulted with Samarthya which audited our facilities and provided feedback."

Ms. Khanna also explains that incorporating accessible features into the stations and trains of D.M.R.C. did not hike the cost substantially. In fact, a beneficial fallout of D.M.R.C.'s initiative was that the guiding tiles, which were initially imported from Australia, were taken up for manufacture by a domestic company called Pelican Ceramics (see box on tactiles on next page).
Standardised design is another aspect to making cities accessible. In a new environment, such as in a new country, sighted people rely on visual cues like signage to orient themselves. For visually impaired persons every new building feels like a new country.

Dipendra Manocha, Director, I.T. and Services, National Association for the Blind, Delhi, recounts how standardisation made life easier during a visit to Japan. "Even though I was in an alien place, once I was inside a public toilet I did not require any help because the design was completely standardised. The Japanese are a very standards-abiding people."

In the absence of any design standards, even so-called accessible buildings fall short of expectations. Says Praveen Kumar, a visually impaired person who works as Programme Manager at the India Programme Office of Voluntary Services Organisation, Delhi, "It is difficult to reach an auditorium at Delhi ' India Habitat Centre which is supposed to be accessible. There are no tactile directions and Braille maps are a distant dream. " Mr. Kumar ' office has a Braille map at the entrance which can quickly orient blind people.

Ms. Agarwal of Samarthya feels that "having Braille maps and signage is not necessarily the ultimate solution since a Braille user in Tamil will not be able to understand Hindi Braille markings. " She feels that an organisation such as the Bureau of Indian Standards (B.I.S.) should be actively involved in developing standards for audio clues or signages.

It is not as if India does not have any standards. The C.P.W.D., the premier construction agency of the Government of India, which also performs a regulatory function in setting the pace for the building industry in the country, has brought out Guidelines and Space Standards for Barrier-free Built Environment (accessible on the Internet at

Ms. Agarwal feels that a monitoring agency or an access coordination cell can ensure that standards are complied with. She mentions the Access Champions concept of the U.K. which consists of persons with disabilities, government personnel and other stakeholders. These champions examine blueprints and advise architects and planners on making the built environment accessible.

D.M.R.C.'s decision to install accessible lifts at its stations set it back by Rs. 5 crore. "But ", says Ms. Khanna, "These lifts now benefit all passengers and 11; old and infirm, pregnant women and mothers with prams. If a technology is available and you don't incorporate it, it is a shame. "

Mr. Manocha feels that a scientific approach to designing can provide gracefully accessible spaces. He explains that applying the concept of circulation paths to guide people would make movement much simpler. "Blind people prefer to move along an edge, such as a wall, so that they can feel their way around. But furniture, flower pots and other materials are stacked along the wall, which makes it difficult for them to utilise the walls as a navigation guide. Thinking in terms of circulation paths will take care of everyone ' needs."

Mr. Manocha pins a lot of hope on emerging technology. He, along with Samarthya, is currently involved in a project with I.I.T., Delhi, which utilises Radio Frequency Identification (R.F.I.D.) technology to make bus stops accessible to blind people. Simply put, the bus stop will be able to interact with a blind person to announce the arrival of the bus, its number and destination. Similarly, traffic lights with audio signals and lifts with audio messages are examples of technological solutions to accessibility problems faced by blind persons. But he feels that all this is possible only if accessibility is viewed not as a physical issue but as a services issue.

He explains the difference, "One must audit a service rather than a space to see if it is accessible. Take banking as an example. If one audits a bank for physical access, one might find that it has achieved physical accessibility, but if one considers all the services of a bank, one will examine if the A.T.M.s have an audio interface, or if the bank ' website is accessible to blind people and allows easy navigation, and so on."

Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act of the United States demonstrates the power of this approach. The highlight to Section 508 is that it promotes accessibility over accommodation. Accessibility is proactive, whereas accommodation is reactive. For example, under the theory of accommodation (Sections 501 or 504 of the Rehabilitation Act), an agency might wait for hard of hearing people to assert their need for a telephone amplifier. However, under Section 508 accessibility requirements, a Federal agency that purchases a new phone system must provide telephone amplification at each phone station.

P.R. Mehta, former President, Council of Architecture, draws attention to the massive Jawaharlal Nehru Urban Renewal Mission on Urban Infrastructure and Governance which was launched by the Prime Minister in December 2005. The Mission will select 63 cities for a complete renewal. Mr. Mehta feels that a representation by disability organisations to the Ministry of Urban Development to include a barrier-free environment as one of the criterion for disbursal of funds to urban local bodies could, in a flash, change the landscape of Indian cities and make them accessible.

In award-winning Australian playwright Alex Broun and play titled Blind City, there is a massive flash in the night sky over Sydney in Australia. That night, a character in the play has a dream that every one waking the next morning has turned blind. One can't help but marvel at the idea of a city that has been blinded overnight. It is a writer's imagination, but imagination is what results in a vision for the future, and imagination is what is required to ensure that our cities are accessible to all persons.

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