Naga Chokkanathan

Unshrink Their World

Posted on: October 10, 2012

Last week, a friend visited me at work. I went to the gate to welcome him. “Come in, let’s catch up over a cup of coffee”, I offered.

“That’s OK, we can speak here in the car”, he refused politely.

“It’s no bother, plus, the car is nowhere as comfortable as an air-conditioned conference room”, I insisted.

He smiled hesitantly, and said, “I have a small problem with my leg, I cannot climb stairs”.

“No problem, there is an elevator.”

“Of course, but to get to the elevator, we have to climb a few steps, that is difficult.”

When he put it that way, I got thinking. It was true: to get to the elevator, one had to climb up a few steps. Disabled, differently-abled, people on a wheelchair, senior citizens, would all find this difficult. What surprised me was that, having worked in this office for 8 years, having climbed up and down these steps several times a day, not once had I thought about it from this point of view.

“I was like you as well”, he added, observing my expression, “until I had a paralysis attack a few years back. It was a miracle that I survived. I had to stay in bed for a many weeks, and only now, I have the confidence to get around with a walking stick.”

“Until this attack, I never gave a second thought to steps such as these. Only when it became difficult for me, I began observing every building. I realized that more than half the buildings here, aren’t disabled-friendly.”

“Take your building for example. Had they set up a ramp next to these steps, I can enter comfortably. It would cost a few thousand rupees more, and it isn’t a big deal. But that thought, to consider differently-abled people, that is the problem.”

“Not just this building, many restaurants, theaters, shopping malls, industries, corporate offices, schools, colleges, why, even some hospitals aren’t disabled-friendly. It never occurs to people that it is essential. What can be done?”, he finished with desperate helplessness clouding his tone.

On hearing his monologue, I looked at the entire world with new eyes. I began assessing every building I saw, for disabled-friendliness.

It’s sad, that even in metropolitan cities, in an area with 100 buildings, hardly 10-15 buildings are disabled-friendly. The rest of the buildings have at least 2 – 6 steps, and make access difficult. When you read this, think about your apartment or office building : does it have a ramp? Would a person, either on a wheelchair or with a walking stick, be able to enter with ease?

But what if there isn’t a ramp? They could enter with someone’s help, you might argue.

I am sure they could, but disabled people want to be independent and self-confident and get around by themselves. They aren’t expecting our help or our pity. Don’t you think it is essential to facilitate this?

Not just in our country, this problem exists all over the world. Building owners, or architects who design them, don’t give this enough importance. This causes the world to shrink around disabled people. For example, one could be an avid reader. But if all the book shops in town had steep steps at the entrance, how can he browse through and select books? Also, say there are 10 theaters at a place, but only one of them has a ramp. Do the other 9 theaters exist at all to a disabled person? That’s why they compain that “our world shrinks around us”.

There are many new initiatives aimed at solving this problem. The latest among them is “Access Map”.

“Access Map” rates buildings based on how easy it is for disabled people to access or approach. For example, if a building has only steps at the entrance, it gets 1 point; If it has a comfortable ramp, 2 points; if the elevators are big enough to fit wheelchairs, another point; if the building has wide hallways, another point; and if it has disabled-friendly toilets, yet another point. And if a building has all of the above, it gets the full five points!

They request the general public to rate each and every building. They then consolidate these scores, and map every city based on “access friendliness”. Say a street has 4 restaurants, but only one of them has a ramp; the “Access Map” highlights that restaurant, while warning about the remaining 4 with a red circle.

A person on a wheelchair, can check this map either on his computer or mobile phone, even before he leaves home. And based on “access friendliness”, he can plan his day. Taking this a step further, they encourage and praise establishments that have a comfortable ramp, wide hallways to fit wheelchairs, etc, in the hope to raise awareness among other “inaccessible” buildings.

Currently, in countries like the USA, the “Access Map” is spreading virally. And, it is available in India as well. But it isn’t as popular, and the public isn’t aware about this option. The more the public assesses buildings, the more effective this system will be.

So, if you are on your feet or on a wheelchair, observe and rate every building you visit with this in mind. You can then enter your rating in the “Access Map” website (http://www.axsmap.com/), either from your computer or mobile phone, free of charge. Encourage your family and friends to do the same.

Through our joint effort, India will have an excellent “Access Map” in a few months. Let us do our bit to ‘un-shrink” the world for our differently-abled friends!

(Originally Published in Tamil @ http://nchokkan.wordpress.com/2012/10/06/axsmap/

Translated By : Anuradha Srinivasan)

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The opinions expressed here are the views of the writer and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of the Organization He works for / belongs to.

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