Friday, 29 June 2012

Whither universal design ?

Times of India, June 30 2012

Two  words  I have been hearing a lot of late have been  `universal design', which encompasses other phrases such as `accessibility' and `barrier-free environments', which I have been concerned with especially after I started having to use a wheelchair for most activities needing my moving around a bit. The fact that my extended family includes a large number of architects had ensured that I had heard of the `National Institute of Design' at Ahmedabad as being the Mecca for design of various sorts. Also contributing to this knowledge was the fact that a close family friend for several decades had been the late Dashrath Patel, the first director of design education at NID.

A few weeks ago, I  heard about a fellow wheelchair-user who had applied for and been selected for the Graphic Design course `under PH category'. Although the institute recognised the existence of such a `PH category', its designers do not seem to have done so. Going by the description one finds in the blog maintained by Vishal, our would-be designer on a wheel-chair, most of the classrooms as well as the rooms in the boys' hostel are on the 1st, 2nd or 3rd floors; and the main buildings  have no elevators. To be fair to our designers, they apparently do have some ramps  on the ground floor, but they seem to have decided that nobody in a wheel-chair would need to go any higher!

Before dashing off a `fire-and-brimstone' article to ToI, I thought I should discreetly check with Vishal about his subsequent experiences with NID, and learnt of the refreshingly encouraging reception Vishal seems to have been receiving from the administration; they have already built some ramps in the hostel and campus areas; they have commenced building a room in the hostel for people like Vishal; they have identified a place where a new elevator will be built. It is only fitting that NID should lead by example  for others to follow.

Not everybody is as lucky as Vishal. In fact, not long before  I  first heard about Vishal and NID, I had also heard about a visually impaired person studying Computer Science in an Engineering College affiliated to Anna University, Chennai, being told by the University officials that technical professional courses like engineering are not for visually challenged people and asked to go out of the college without spoiling the results of the college. I would be very surprised if his college in Erode was anywhere near as sympathetic as NID.

Let me conclude with this amusing tidbit, that people like Vishal need to pull their weight to make a reality before long: (I hear he has already started in the right direction and is preparing to start an NGO called `Give some space'! You can find more about it at

The `Guidelines and Space Standards for Barrier Free Built Environment for Disabled and Elderly People' prepared by the Central Public Works Department, Ministry of Urban Affairs and Employ- ment, India, 1998, says, among other things, that:

The scope and responsibilities which have been identified in various organisations will include the following:


 There should be a conscious attempt of all educationists to develop young architects/planners with an awareness of creating barrier free environment for physically handicapped.

A detail design exercise should be carried out in all schools of Architecture in their curricula as an essential subject of architecture education.

(Note: I have taken the liberty to edit the italicised lines above, merely to conform to the King's English.)

Friday, 15 June 2012

Let us learn to hear you

Times of India, June 16 2012

There has been one noteworthy omission from among the list of issues faced by the differently abled that I have been addressing in this blog. I have been dearly wanting to be able to say something halfway meaningful about the travails of the hearing impaired. To date, I had made fairly serious attempts on at least four occasions, in vain, to get such a person to try and formulate some specific observances by `normal people' which would mitigate some common difficulties they face. Maybe because hearing impairment is not overtly visible to people (like a person in a wheel-chair, or a visibility impaired person walking with the white cane), many people including me have very little real conception of the world of one who cannot hear. 

But a few weeks ago, I received a wonderful email where the writer identified herself as a middle-aged woman from Mumbai, who had been faithfully reading my column for quite some time, and explained that she had a hearing impairment. I immediately sat up, thinking `could this be my lead?' So I wrote back to her narrating the failed attempts discussed above, and asked if she would help me get a glimpse of the world from the perspective of one with her constraints. The very next day, I got this remarkably revealing email from her, which I simply reproduce below, verbatim and in toto, if only because it rings so true, and gives the reader a ring-side seat to the problems that people like her face every day:

Thank you so much for your prompt and encouraging mail. I am so happy to know that you would like to touch upon the trials of  hearing impaired folks . It is not at all  insensitive on your part to do so, on the contrary it would be a good platform for sharing.

I do not mind sharing some of the problems I face which a hearing person takes for granted. Starting with my alarm clock in the morning, I do not hear the beep. It is my husband who hears it and wakes me up. However when I travel out of town my wake up call is the vibrator modeof the mobile phone. Simple rituals like the whistle of the pressure cooker and kettle requires my physical presence. For the door bell, additional ringers have been placed and a louder bell has been fixed. The biggest problem that one faces is communicating in a big group, when there is a lot of background noise, and following conversation is very difficult. Social exclusion does take place and one does not feel a sense of belonging; during the course of a conversation very often one misses out on vital information or a joke. When everybody laughs it becomes embarrassing and one is misunderstood to be stupid. Hearing impaired folks communicate visually and they get conversation clues through body language, facial expressions and lip movement. It is therefore important to face a hearing impaired person and communicate slowly rather than raise one's voice. Since one has to concentrate hard all the time  to understand conversation, it leaves one very fatigued and tired.

Learning of languages is  very difficult as one cannot hear the words and pronunciation clearly, I faced this problem whilst learning Hindi in school. However now, exemptions from languages are possible for hearing impaired students. While walking on the road one cannot hear the traffic from behind and this can prove to be fatal to one's life. One can get knocked down by a vehicle. While driving very often one cannot hear the traffic and overtaking of cars, visual driving and constant concentration are the ways of manouvering oneself through the traffic. At the airport the announcements are not clear therefore one is constantly vigilant and watching the monitors for flight updates. Entertainment - while watching  television and movies all is not deciphered. However sometimes subtitles are used and these are a boon for the hearing impaired. Communicating through mobile phones, where in text messaging and the option of the vibrator mode is convenient, emails and the use of skype and video phones are also very convenient for hearing impaired folks.

Parents may sometimes miss detecting hearing impairment in their child and may attribute low grades in school to laziness or inattentiveness. A young deaf and dumb lady was trained to work as a beautician. One of her seniors passed on some instructions which she could not hear and therefore she did not respond. The senior was furious and slapped her hard. The senior  was not aware of her problem, and apologised to her later. This is one of many incidents faced by the hearing impaired folks. 

Thank you Rekha!

Saturday, 2 June 2012

Do ATMs have to have steps?

Times of India, June 02, 2012

How is this for a classic Catch-22 situation? My unfortunate friend who was at the receiving end of it obviously cannot see much humour in it! She had had the misfortune of having been affected by Polio as a kid, and has been using such assistive devices as crutches and braces on her legs for most of her life. She continues to gamely try and lead a normal life - having had the fortune of getting married to a good and caring man, and of having found a job in the face of numerous forms of resistance. She goes to work on a three-wheeled scooter - after having mastered the non-trivial mechanics of hobbling on her crutch to her scooter in the parking lot, and getting the scooter moving after having stowed the crutch away, taking care not to fall at any step of the process.

Having to negotiate steps (going down or up) is akin to torture for such people, and steps without any supporting rails on the sides are tanatamount to a blueprint for disaster. To her unalloyed happiness, she discovered that the branch of her bank (Indian Bank) which was near her home had a `drive-in ATM'. She lived happily for a while with this lifeline which elevated at least one necessary periodic chore from yet another painful exercise to a pleasant diversion. Then, `progress and modernisation' struck: her ATM was torn down, and she was told that the Headquarters Office was moving to her branch, which was being accordingly refurbished. She dashed off a distress mail to the HQO asking them what was to become of her freiendly drive-in ATM. To her surprised satisfaction she received a politely worded and prompt response from their IT division head assuring her that the Drive In ATM facility would be restored the minute the new building was ready. Her faith in IT - as well as the human face of commerce - received a nasty blow when the construction was complete, and the old drive-in ATM had been replaced by the unfriendly older model, replete with steps, and the attendant glass swing door was the hair on the camel's back!

Unfortunately, this kind of thoughtless idiocy continues to torment the lives of a large number of people, on a daily - and painful - basis. If you want  a good laugh, you should peruse the trite solecisms mouthed in the `National Policy for Persons with Disabilities' drafted by the
Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment of the Government of India
(see For
instance, the first paragraph announces that:

The Constitution of India ensures equality, freedom, justice and dignity of all individuals and implicitly mandates an inclusive society for all including persons with disabilities. In the recent years, there have been vast and positive changes in the perception of the society towards persons with disabilities. It has been realized that a majority of persons with disabilities can lead a better quality of life if they have equal opportunities and effective access to rehabilitation measures.

`Vast and positive changes in the perception of the society towards persons with disabilities'! Hah! I  would like to see some of these avowed perceptions and realisations (that a majority of persons with disabilities can lead a better quality of life if they have equal opportunities)  manifested, for instance, in an enforced requirement  that at least every fifth branch of each nationalised bank should  host an ATM with a drive-in facility, and a ramp of acceptable slope in all their ATMs!