My life is disabled by my environment
So, when was the last time you had to turn back without getting your work done because you couldn’t get into an office building? Or decline an invitation to an event or missed out on a celebration because the venue was inaccessible? Have you ever been unable to go to school, college or go shopping because there was no ramp or a washroom you could use? These are just a few scenarios faced by wheelchair users on a daily basis. There are many, many more – too many to list here.
But we don’t see wheelchair users around or I don’t think we have many people who use wheelchairs, some of you might be thinking. Yes, it’s true that you don’t see too many wheelchairs users going about their business and living their life like any other ordinary citizen in a state like ours. However, it’s a false assumption that we don’t have many people who use wheelchairs.
There are hundreds and thousands of people – children, teenagers, young adults, middle-aged persons and senior citizens – who use wheelchairs due to various reasons. You know why you don’t see many of them out and about? Inaccessibility, inaccessibility and more inaccessibility! Almost all our built environment and public spaces are inaccessible – offices, commercial buildings, restaurants and other recreation places, banks, schools, colleges, even hospitals and clinics – you name it and it’s inaccessible. Wheelchair users and even those who may not use a wheelchair but have reduced mobility, such as senior citizens, face insurmountable obstacles and hence most are literally confined to their homes unable to venture out.
The photo attached shows me staring up at a flight of stairs at the Directorate of Health and Family Welfare, the only entrance into the office building. There is no lift or ramp. No, I did not turn back because I had urgent disability health service matters I needed to discuss with the Principal Director and I wasn’t about to leave without meeting him. I have partial mobility and am able to move my legs to a certain extent with some assistance. So I determinedly struggled up the steps with my driver Simon and my personal assistant Bharti holding on to me and pushing and pulling me when necessary. We finally reached the lobby and I plonked down on my chair exhausted……. only to discover that the PD’s office was located on the top floor of the building. And, of course, there is no lift provision inside either so I was forced to tackle another four flights of stairs.
Difficult as it is given the very unfriendly environment, I try to be on the go as much as possible in the hope that this would create more awareness on the need for accessibility and disability in general. I’m completely frustrated most of the time and, everywhere I go, you’ll hear me loudly trying to draw the attention of concerned authorities on the lack of accessibility. I’ve tried to channel this frustration into advocacy for change and it has become a personal mission of sorts. But someone in a wheelchair outside the home doing everyday things that so-called ‘normal’ people do is still a strange sight for many. There’s plenty of the inevitable gawking and I can almost see the thoughts running through their minds wondering what the heck I was doing out in public in a wheelchair. The answer to that is I’m just living my life as anyone else.
Getting around the built environment is something most people take for granted. You need to go somewhere, you just go. It’s not a big deal, right? Well, for a person with disability it’s quite a big deal. As a wheelchair user I have to spend a lot of time preparing for any ‘trip’ outside – first of all, I have to find out whatever I can about the place I need to go to, how accessible or inaccessible it is, then plan how to get into it and whether I would need to take along extra ‘assistants’ to help me. It is often needed and so I would have to make calls and request whoever is free to accompany me. After all, I don’t have an entourage sitting around ready to move with me whenever I have to go out. Too many times I have had to simply give up the thought of going anywhere at all because the barriers were just too great.
Accessibility in the built environment means being able to enter and move around buildings, public spaces, and any other place a person might need to go for work, education, worship, business, services, recreation and so on. In other words, you need accessibility to live a life. If you do not have access to these places and cannot participate in the various activities you essentially do not have a life. You are socially isolated and left without any options or hope for the future.
With Nagaland still practically stuck in the dark ages when it comes to accessibility, what chances do people living with disabilities have? Just think about that. What are their chances in life when they cannot access education or employment? What kind of lived experience will they have when they have no access to any cultural or social life? That sounds bleak and miserable, doesn’t it? But that’s exactly what it’s like for people with disabilities. We are basically shut out of life. My life did not stop with my spinal cord injury. The way I went about it may have changed, but it did not end my desire to live, to explore and experience whatever life has to offer. The only thing that stands in the way is inaccessibility.
Accessibility. Inclusion. We hear these words all the time, but what do they really mean? In fact, we’ve just celebrated the International Day of Persons with Disabilities and we heard many wonderful speeches on the theme “Empowering Persons with Disabilities and ensuring Inclusiveness and Equality”. How about some affirmative action as well? People with disabilities are completely disempowered by the inaccessible environment as it excludes them from society and deprives them of the opportunities that are out there. See the connection? Inclusion and empowerment can happen only when barriers that prevent people with disabilities from participating fully in society are removed.