DISABILITY :CHALLENGES VS RESPONSES
( By Ali Baquer; Anjali Sharma )

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b-Common Concerns of Diverse Groups

Since both authors of this book are deeply convinced that effective implementation of the Indian Disability Law depends as much on the government initiatives and its various administrative, legal and financial arrangements as on the active involvement of those who have the direct experience of disability, this Chapter presents the outcome of the authors’ extensive consultations with several groups of people. This Chapter is, thus, written by several hands, that is by people drawn from different backgrounds and displaying diverse professional, social and personal interests. The sub-section on disabled women has been contributed by Ranjana Subberwal; on mobility by Sanjay Bhatnagar; on academics by Biswajit Das; the one on architecture by Preeti and Kabir Vajpeyi; on disabled soldier by Bina Desai. Girls and Women with Disabilities in India

Background : Generalisations about any group in a country as vast, as diverse, as much a synthesis of contradictions as India, could be misleading, yet there are certain marked trends and collective experiences which can not and should not be ignored. A vast majority of India’s 937 million people is caught in the web of tradition and modernity, stagnation and progress, dreams of the past and visions of the future. There are a lot of pains and suffering in the process of transition, the pace of which is, at times, quickening at an alarming rate.

Despite all the upheavals and uncertainities, there have been several social and political issues which have received wholehearted support from women in India. As a recognition of the supreme sacrifices women had made for the nation and the dependable support they had willingly given to the political activities during the British Raj, the Indian National Congress, under the leadership of Mahatma Gandhi (who was a great champion of womens’ rights and objected to their subjugation and exploitation), had adopted the principle of gender equality as early as 1931.

Women’s Contribution : Even after India became politically independent women, in substantial numbers, have been involved in rebuilding the social and economic structure of the country. They have been active in large scale grassroots projects like the Chipko crusade – the green movement against the grim consequences of the depletion of forests – and stopped the felling of trees. They have initiated and sustained the Narmada Bachao Andolan and have been protesting against the building of Sardar Sarover Dam. They have been agitating in Maharashtra against price-rise and inflation. They have successfully raised their voice against the menace of liquor.

Denial of Rights : Yet they have failed to become meaningful partners in political processes and have been consistently denied by men their right to occupy positions in decision-making committees and in the formal processes of governance. The national policies periodically announce various measures for womens’ empowerment, the latest being a proposed Bill to ensure 33 per cent reservation for women in the Parliament and State Assemblies. Even if on paper the battles for womens’ rights get won, in real life they remain incapable of eradicating the syndrome of tokenism and, somehow, do not get assigned positions of responsibility. In the 1996 general elections, out of 14,274 candidates for 545 seats in Lok Sabha, 491 were women and of these only 36 got elected. Two thirds had to contest as independent candidates because their parties denied them tickets. In a 35 member Union Cabinet only one woman has been made a minister.

Meaning of Disability for Women : Women, much more than men, carry society’s cross on their backs but the cross that disabled women are burdened with all through their lives is three times more heavy because of their gender, their disability and their being the most deprived group. The ugliest expressions of gender discrimination are found in the field of disability, frequently cutting across social, economic, political and cultural dimensions.

Girls and women with disabilities rarely find a place on the country’s agenda of development programmes. Their specific needs and their right to independence and dignity somehow get overlooked although the Constitution of India granted equality to women in 1950 and empowered the State to adopt measures for affirmative discrimination in favour of women. The intention of the then lawmakers of India was to neutralise the cumulative ill-effects and disadvantages in the socio-economic and educational, political and cultural life of the country. Gender equity was firmly placed as the core objective of the Constitution of India nearly half a century ago. The rights of people with disabilities gradually acquired a central position in the deliberations of the United Nations and its various organs.

But, despite international and national advocacy movements led by dedicated and courageous feminists as well as disability activists and the support for women’s issues extended by the Indian policymakers and concerned NGOs, the plight of disabled girls and women remains virtually unchanged. They continue to fall through the elaborate network of the country’s services and sophisticated plans aimed at poverty eradication; expansion of social and economic infrastructure; wide range of extension services and legislative safeguards; dissemination of relevant and pertinent information and schemes to implement private, governmental and non-governmental interventions and programmes.

The Current Situation : The tragic and sad truth, however, is that in India, a country which is home for over 40 million disabled girls and women, the present scenario is grim and grave. There is an urgent need to analyse the reasons for their chronic neglect so that steps may be taken to ensure for disabled women their rightful place in society and also to prevent the deliberate as well as unintended attempts to side-step them.

The Dominant Male Attitude : For centuries there has been a pervasive culture in India dominated by men which affects everything including the way women in general, and disabled women in particular, are looked upon and treated in their homes, out on the streets, in places of learning or worship, in the fields, offices and factories.

The history of protest and activism on their behalf is long and impressive, yet women in India are among the most backward in the world: they are illiterate, maternal mortality is high, work participation is inadequate. Disabled women, much more than their able-bodied sisters, have been subjected to deliberate neglect, verbal abuse, physical assaults and sexual harrassment. There seems to be a conspiracy against women, almost an underground male agenda, resulting in the marginalisation and even victimisation of disabled women.

Gender Imbalances : The facts speak for themselves. Though the child-mortality rates in India, as a consequence of improved medical and health services, are falling, the mortality rates among girls are on the rise. These are the results of sex-related abortions or instant post-natal deaths due to deliberate neglect or killing of newly-born female children through purposeful withdrawal of nutritional or medical interventions or even physical murders, undetected or overlooked by the law enforcing agencies. The inevitable consequence of these (mal)practices is the adverse sex-ratio for females and its decline from 972 females per 1000 males in 1901 to 927 females per 1000 males in 1991, a testimony to women’s limited access to health facilities and deprivation in matters of food, nutrition and health services.

A sizeable number of girls and women with disabilities are permanently in poor health. In addition to a number of specific diseases they remain weak and at great risk of falling ill frequently. They are not provided with rehabilitative services and are confined to their homes. They seldom get invited to attend family or social functions and interact with relatives and friends.

Isolation and Alienation : Such intense social isolation cuts them off from a range of developments taking place in the country; from going out shopping and selecting clothes or shoes or other items for their own use; from attending educational courses; from participating in meetings/workshops organised for their benefit; from utilising self-help opportunities and vocational training programmes designed to increase their income and to secure economic independence.

The Vicious Cycle of Deprivation : If the scenario depicting the situation and status of women without disabilities is so alarming the condition for women with disabilities is several-fold worse. They are regarded as inferior beings not only by able-bodied men and women but ironically by men with disabilities as well. They are deprived of nutrition and health services at birth and during infancy; education services during childhood,love and affection throughout their lives . They are prevented from learning skills necessary for enhanced productivity and income. Their dependence on families inside and exposure to blatant discrimination outside homes deprive them of their dignity and self-confidence. Furthermore, they are subjected to violence in all its forms. They remain hidden, locked in their isolation. Their entire existence from cradle to grave remains overlooked by society. Disabilities add risks to women and they end up being the poorest of all people, the most marginalised and the most abused – physically, mentally and socially.

Modernising Societies and Disabled Women : It is an established fact that the suffering in rural communities of women in general and disabled women in particular is much higher than that of able-bodied and disabled men. Increasing urbanisation has not been of much help to disabled girls and women in India. Lack of proper education and training, coupled with their poor health and dependence are the root causes of their marginalisation as a labour force. They do not benefit from the opportunities that growing cities offer to other people. Most of the jobs open to disabled women are in the unorganised sector where conditions are bad and job security is almost non-existent.

Disabled women tend to suffer much more from the gender bias in the impersonal urban environment than in the villages since, in the absence of security provided by the informal watch by people known to them since birth, they become vulnerable to sexual harrassment and victimisation prevalent in the cities. The crimes against disabled girls and women frequently go unreported because they and/or their families have no courage or strength to report these to the police. Public awareness about such matters consequently remains low and the follow-up actions on their behalf do not take place.

Most cities do not as yet have adequate infrastructure to suit the needs of disabled girls and women. Very few residential places in hostels or outside are available for working girls with disabilities. Those that exist are not suitable for a number of reasons. Barriers like inaccessible buildings and unsuitable means of transport add to their problems and prevent them from becoming independent.

Consequences of Discrimination : A recent World Bank report lists the ways in which women are discriminated. As girls they get less vaccination, less education, less nutrition and less time at the mother’s breast than their brothers. When they grow up they are less healthy than their male counterparts and easily succumb to disease. As pregnant mothers an alarming number dies in childbirth. "An Indian woman is 100 times more likely to die during or after childbirth than a woman in the West". A disabled girl or woman suffers much more. Poverty, ignorance, illiteracy, malnutrition, male attitudes, their own indifference towards their own status and situation aggravate and compound their problems. Even if a handful of women occupy positions of power and influence they seldom take a clear stand on women issues. All this does not happen in isolated cases but are trends which systematically devalue women in social, economic, political and cultural terms.

Marriage and Family Life : The society regards disabled women as non-sexual. They are not considered suitable for marriage. They do not receive sex education from their parents and as a result they are unable to protect themselves against sexual exploitation which leads to unwanted pregnancies and sexually transmitted diseases. Since some mentally retarded girls can not be easily taught to manage their monthly menstrual cycle, there is a school of thought among experts that they must undergo hysterectomy, although the removal of wombs and ovaries could, in a number of cases, lead to hormonal imbalances and depression.

In India, marriages are mostly arranged. A disabled woman gets disqualified for marriage on account of her handicap. If marriage ever takes place a number of compromises are made. Either they are married to much older men or widowers or become a second wife for a childless married man. In most cases non-disabled men get married to disabled women but the reverse is not true. The dowry demanded by men and offered by the families of the disabled women is exhorbitant. Disabled women are considered incapable of bearing and rearing healthy children. If a woman becomes disabled after her marriage, there are strong chances that she would be abandoned by her husband.

The Price of Being a Disabled Woman : Society undervalues women with disabilities. She is not considered an ideal child or an acceptable person as an adult, is unfit as an employee, unsuitable as a wife, incapable as a mother. They are ignored by fashion designers, hair-stylists, beauticians, dieticians, dentists, doctors, restaurant owners, shop-keepers and countless others.

Collective Action : The political commitment and the international climate in favour of disabled girls and women has never been stronger than it is today. There is a new awakening in this sector which has experienced neglect, discrimination and marginalisation for a very long time. Through an increased number of national and international forums disabled women are voicing their preferences and demanding corrective actions to remove gender-imbalance.

Precise Information : Lack of precise information on the numbers and the extent of the problems faced by women with disabilities make it difficult to plan practical measures to help them demand and secure their rights. Estimates vary a great deal – exaggerated by the disability activists on the one hand and reduced by statutory and non-governmental agencies responsible for providing services on the other. Data must be updated with specific reference to disabled girls and women and the severity of their disabilities so that the full magnitude of the task could be understood and the resources required to remedy the situation could be realistically calculated.

Education and Training : Education and vocational training are the instruments to provide women with disabilities an improved status and a voice in matters which influence the quality of their life. The most effective strategy would be to enable girls and women with disabilities to get proper education which until now has been regarded as unimportant by their families and the society. Apart from income generation, which is very important in its own right, education helps to enhance their status and capabilities. But, it may be necessary to provide them with proper motivation for this purpose. The investment in education of disabled girls, either though integrated or segregated systems, is an investment which pays handsome dividends.

The drop-out rate for all girls in grades IV and V is high as this is the time when they reach puberty. Some of the young disabled girls find the management of menstrual cycle difficult. It is also the time when the families become concerned about their security outside and away from home. Measures to attract attendance at schools and colleges must be carefully sharpened since a majority of them are dependent on their families and the society.

Employment : Despite concentrated efforts by the central and state governments to improve their literacy levels, success has been illusive. If school enrolments have increased, the drop-out rates, due to socio-cultural factors, have also remained high. Only one girl in every three enrolled reaches the end of schooling.

There has been considerable expansion in employment opportunities as effective ways to eradicate poverty, to reduce inequalities in incomes and standards of living and also to sustain economic growth. Though the contribution of women to the Indian economy is substantial, their work participation ranges from a dismal four per cent in the backward States to only 34 per cent in the progressive ones. An overall representation of women in employment remains low. Among the factors which contribute to this dismal picture include poor educational attainments, absence of appropriate skills and training, social and cultural barriers (such as the reluctance of the families to let them go out and work and the pervasive gender bias to employ them at par with men).

Unemployment and underemployment rates are very high among disabled women. They face immense difficulties in finding suitable jobs and frequently have to contend with low wages. "When disabled women do find jobs, they receive considerably lower wages. For example, even for an industrialised country, studies have shown that a disabled woman working full-time earns only 56 per cent of a salary of a full-time employed disabled man or a non-disabled woman" ("Hidden Sisters"). The reason is the prejudice of the employers against disabled women. They would rather offer a job to a disabled man than employ a disabled woman.

Disabled Friendly Transport : One of the major hurdles in the full participation of disabled people in mainstream activities is the unfriendly transport system. This is particularly problematic for disabled women. Not every one can afford private transport. Recent governmental policies of liberalisation have attracted a large number of car manufacturers to India but no systematic attention is paid to the real needs of those disabled who are ready and willing to be independent as far as their transport needs are concerned. In the list of their mobility needs is a range of vehicles which are steady, reliable, economic to run, convenient to drive, easy to park and are easily serviceable.

The Empowerment of Disabled Women : There is an urgent need to highlight the issues related to disabled women and corrective steps are taken to expedite the process of change in favour of this sector. There is a need that disabled women should themselves stand up for their rights and take individual and collective actions to improve the quality of their lives. They must occupy positions in the decision-making and policy-formulating bodies so that the outcome of the deliberations of such agencies – local, state, national and international – should be in their own interest. Representation of their interest through the media, cooperatives and other self-help organisations is essential. Often the silence of this large segment of disabled population is misunderstood as lack of interest, motivation and initiative.

The legislative framework has been created to protect the rights of people with disabilities. But, the disabled need not wait for this law to be implemented and must accept responsibility for translating the intent and spirit of the law into positive action. They should make every effort to strengthen the national and State mechanisms set up by the government for the advancement of women and girls, both able-bodied and disabled. At the central level, there is the Department of Women and Child Development. There are also Central and State Welfare Boards, the National Institute of Public Cooperation and Child Development, the National Commission for Women, the Rashtriya Mahila Kosh (National Credit Fund for Women). In addition to these there are a host of other NGOs, UN agencies and international organisations engaged in the promotion of the cause of women in India. These should be encouraged to serve the cause of disabled girls and women.

Longitudinal and action research studies must be undertaken on various issues related to all aspects of the life of disabled girls and women. With reliable data and pertinent information the administrators and policymakers would feel confident to divert resources which help disabled women.

The Mobility Problems

Those who are able to walk often do not realise the extent and handicapping problems the non-walkers face throughtout their lives. Most societies are dominated by the walking culture of the able-bodied. No legal safeguards can make the non-walkers, the legless, the wheelchair-bound and the bed-ridden feel normal. The society, at its best, can try to make the inability to walk a disabling condition. People who can not walk should not be forced to live in situations which deprive them opportunities to education, employment, recreation, shopping, travel etc. In a society where people are identified with the way they stand up or walk their inability to do these routine acts deprives them of their identity and, to a great extent, their dignity.

The literature of most of the Indian languages are full of references to the way a beloved walks. The everso popular Indian film songs reinforce the act of walking as a sexually attractive act. Having the use of legs has great advantages for an individual apart from his/her ability to go from point A to point B, negotiate stairs, run to catch a bus, dance, drive vehicles, attract the opposite sex, find a wide range of employment opportunities, play outdoor games, make children happy by carrying them on shoulders, maintain matrimonial relationships, see eye-to-eye with people and not from a a low position in a wheelchair or a bed or even the floor. The inability to walk strips an individual of all these advantages and creates dependence, humiliation and misery. It is a convincing proof of social discrimination that all those who are unable to walk are regarded as inadequate and irrelevant.

There are two traditional responses of society to this challenge of locomotor problems and non-walking caused by crippling diseases such as poliomyelitis, spina bifida, multiple sclerosis, psuedo muscular–atrophy, amputation of legs etc. The first one is to provide assistive devices which help such persons "walk" with crutches, wheelchairs, artificial limbs etc. The other is to search for medical answers either for the prevention of such diseases or their cure through the use of drugs or surgery. The emphasis in both these measures is on enabling the individual rise up to the standards of an able-bodied society.

The Indian Disability Act now demands that the environment should be made barrier-free. The new expectation from the professionals such as town planners and architects, designers of public transport system and employers is that arrangements must be devised that non-walking should not be a hinderance. It must be realised by the entire society that in order to provide full participation to disabled people and to make integrated living a reality those unable to walk must have full access to their physical environment. The existing housing, transport and architectural infrastructure must be adapted to the needs of the disabled people and the new ones, particularly the Municipal Rapid Transport System (MRTS), must be designed with full realisation of the needs of disabled people and with their consultation.

Mobility facilities should be paid attention to for within the house and outside. The doors and the floors inside the house must be wide enough for wheelchairs and safety devices like handrails must be fitted in appropriate places like toilets, bathrooms, bedrooms, kitchen etc to allow a disabled person as independent a living as possible. Easy and safe to use crutches, walking frames and wheelchairs should be available at subsidised rates. Adapted bicycles, motorcycles, three-wheelers and cars should be easily available and there should be financial arrangements to borrow loans to purchase suitable devices at low interest. There also should be services available to maintain these vehicles in a working condition. Wherever needed the users of these vehicles should have easily accessible parking facilities, perhaps free of cost. The municipalities should provide disks to display on the windscreen making parking of vehicles convenient.

Modern technology must be used to make mobility for disabled people easier and sufficient funds should be earmarked for research and development actvities in this area. Apart from greater emphasis on making the mobility devices more convenient, more safe and more accessible attention must be paid to make the physical environment more friendly to people with disabilities. The existing built environment is predominantly inaccessible. Clear rules and procedures must be intimated to the architects, builders, contractors and town planners so that the situation changes in favour of the mobility of disabled people.

The efforts of the medical science researchers, health service providers, health educators and public health workers must become more vigorous and better coordinated to prevent disability through an effective programme of immunisation. The clinical knowledge and awareness of disabling disorders must be shared with practitioners of related professions like education and social work and diagnostic efforts should become even more comprehensive. Interlocking of professionals in the programmes of diagnosis, treatment, rehabilitation and after-care must take place as a matter of priority. A common aim of all professionals in the care and cure of disability should be to make persons with disabilities socially, academically and economically more independent.

Responsibility of Academics

People with disabilities are grossly under-represented in all forms of academic life–from going to pre-school to teaching in schools, colleges, universities and other institutions of learning. Their restricted access to educational opportunities, both as the teacher and the taught, are a result of direct and indirect discrimination. Those who overcome numerous hurdles to demand their rightful opportunities frequently receive poor quality of education and/or vocational training and thereby their chances of obtaining well-paid employment get substantially reduced. According to a report of the British Council of Organisations of Disabled People (BCODP):

Disabled school leavers are socially immature and isolated. This isolation results in passive acceptance of social discrimination, lack of skills in facing the task of adulthood and ignorance about the main issues of our time.

In order to prevent discrimination against disabled people and to create a more caring and just society it is not enough to provide equal access to disabled people to mainstream education but it is also imperative that the rest of the society should be made aware of disability issues and educated in the processes to fully integrate them. Steps must be taken to reduce the overpowering influence of the non-disabled society in shaping the present and the future through education, science, technology, economy, media and other similar instruments.

While opportunities are being created and used for disabled people to contribute to the intellectual and academic life of India the role of non-disabled, those without handicapping conditions, becomes even more crucial. They must identify and create educational programmes and syllabi at all levels of educational system to inform the entire society about disability issues, the disability movement within the Indian and international context, nutritional and many other aspects of 90 million people of this country and their parents, brothers and sisters, spouses and children.

The academic world must accept the position that the time has come to formally prepare and teach disability courses in schools, colleges and universities not only to award appropriate certificates, diplomas and degrees but also to make the whole society more sensitive, civilsed and responsible. It should not be considered adequate to let the disability concerns be only a fraction of the studies of doctors, dentists, lawyers, architects, town planners, police personnel, psychologists, journalists, political scientists, educationists, engineers and others. With the help of educational arrangements the new and vibrant relationship between a disabled individual and the non-disabled society must be clearly understood by everyone.

As an integral part of transformation of the Indian society through helping citizens acquire greater understanding of disability, the Ministry of Human Resource Development, the University Grants Commission, and various educational arrangements for professional and vocational training, including the open universities, must offer opportunities for sustained and systematic formal courses and training to all those attending schools, colleges and universities. This implies the creation of academic programmes focussing on different aspects of disability and the creation of teaching of such jobs from that of the teacher in a primary school to a professor of disability studies at the university.

Architecture for all

An essay on architecture for the disabled and the non-disabled
"We put thirty spokes together and call it a wheel but it is on the space where there is nothing that the utility of the wheel depends.
We turn clay to make a vessel; but it is on the space where there is nothing that the utility of the vessel depends.
We pierce doors and windows to make a house; and it is on these spaces where there is nothing that the utility of the house depends.
Therefore, just as we take advantage of what is, we should recognize the utility of what is not."

-Lao Tse (Chinese thinker)

A built-space must be designed for the disabled and the non-disabled, both. It should not remain exclusive for either.

How do we perceive space ?

We all stay in buildings of some kind. A building that really lets us live (the way we want to – at the conscious or the sub-conscious level) is rare to find. How do we actually live in a building?

Amongst the various aims of architecture, one of the most important is that of letting the space be more humane and experiential. It encompasses in it the idea of shelter, comfort, functionality, aesthetics, etc. and goes beyond all of them. Experiencing space is actually a way of experiencing life – One’s own life. A building becomes a mode in this process of experiencing life.

We experience life when we hear the chirping of birds in the morning. We smell life in a not yet open, but fragrant, bud of Mogra. We see life when we see a bird weaving a nest on a green tree or a setting sun over the lake. We taste life in the subtle flavours of the Jasmine tea. We feel life when a mother’s touch makes a crying child longing for her, smile.

If a building lets you experience life, it surely is architecture.

If, the rising morning sun wakes you up, you are experiencing life. If your bed room is not properly located or, if the window is not properly placed and designed you would never experience such a morning. The proximity of your living space and your ailing grandfather’s living space would, to a large extent govern how you will feel and share his pains. This proximity will be decided by the design of your home.

When we experience life, especially within a building, through its spaces – the spaces which we use and live in, we experience space when we move in it. We also experience space when we are moved by it. Life and space are inseparable.

‘Space constantly encompasses our being. Through the volume of space, we move, see forms and objects, hear sounds, feel breezes, smell the fragrances of a flower garden in bloom. It is a material substance like wood or stone, yet it is inherently formless. Its visual form, quality of light, dimensions and scale, depend totally on its boundaries as defined by the elements of form. As space begins to be captured, enclosed, molded and organised by the elements of form, architecture, comes into being.’


- Francis D.K. Ching, Architecture : Form Space & Order

How do we experience life ?


We experience life with our senses – eyes, nose, tongue, ears, tactile sensory organs, etc. Our perception is further enriched by our limbs like hands and legs. We come to know what is distant and what is near when we move. The sense of touch is most effectively felt and conveyed by our palm and fingers. A potter imprints her own experiences of touch through the texture of her fingers in a pot. We experience this sense of touch when we hold it in our hands.

We live our life through the sense cues. The sense cues are the ‘hints’ our senses constantly receive in any space to recognize what it is like and what is happening in it. Our brain processes this information and orders other senses and organs to sensitively respond to it.

If our eyes ‘see’ stairs, we (along with our legs and hands) become careful of the level differences and look for the rails and supports. When our ears hear the sound of a car horn while crossing the roads, our legs immediately stop to avoid any accident.

We continuously take cues from our surroundings and respond to it. Be it for bare functional needs of just walking, eating or sitting, or for an aesthetic appreciation of a scenic view, a piece of music or a garden of fragrant flowers, these cues are an essential part of our daily life.

These sensory cues are just supports for us – to live and experience life, they themselves are not experience, but they let you feel what is to be experienced. They make us aware of the environment we live in. They are perceived through our sensory organs.

But what would happen to a person whose sensory organs or limbs, for some reason, are not functioning?

Perhaps, a vision impaired would not be able to see his way through. A hearing impaired would not be able to cross a road confidently. A leprosy patient would not be able to know that the edge of a metal door has already cut the finger. A physically handicapped would always find climbing stairs a problem.

Nature, fortunately, has found a respectable solution to these problems. Loss of one sense or limb is compensated with the enhanced sensitivity in the other. Fragrant flowers are usually not so beautiful (perhaps they are only to be smelled!) and attractive flowers are usually not fragrant (perhaps only to be seen!) One ‘deficiency’ is taken care of by the other. Both kind of flowers are beautiful in their own way.

If I cannot hear, how will the chirping of birds wake me up? Perhaps the moving sunlight will. If I cannot see the beautiful garden, perhaps I can feel its coolness and the fragrance to cherish its beauty. If life has to go on, it has to find its ways of living. Deficiency of one (or some) sensory organs or limbs is compensated by others.

We perceive any phenomenon with more than one sense. For example, we sense an approaching car both visually and by the perception of an hearing sound. We can see, taste, smell and feel, say, a mango fruit. A person who is visually impaired since birth will distinguish a mango with its shape, size, softness, taste and smell. For him the image of a mango even without its visual attribute is complete. Whereas in case of visual impairedness occurring later in life (by this time the visual attributes would have gone into the memory), the image of the same mango would be completed by associating other attributes with the visual image in the memory. A perception of a phenomenon is total or complete only when all the cues addressing these associations are received by us. This association of one cue with the other is a very important phenomenon.

But the whole idea of totality and completeness for each individual is different. The presence of sunlight will always convey warmth also, even if it cannot be felt, because the memory of warmth would complete the image of sunlight for a person who has lost the sense of touch. An image and its perception to make it ‘complete’ differ from person to person. A marble floor will be soft white or pink in colour. These three attributes combine together to make the Marble. The perception of marble will remain even if any one attribute is not sensed. For a visually impaired, since the colour cannot be perceived, the ‘whiteness’ will not matter also. For them, the ‘totality’ of marble is different and complete even without its visual attributes. Marble, for a visually impaired is in its soft touch and not in its sparkling whiteness. Perhaps, the metaphor to describe the Taj Mahal to them should be reinvented. The new metaphor could be in the feelings associated with the sense of touch.

A visually impaired person is invariably more sensitive in hearing, smelling and in sensing touch. This additional sensitivity makes up for the loss of vision. A visually impaired person can feel the edge of a floor with his toe or a stick and make out the presence of a courtyard in a house by feeling the subtle temperature differences in the micro-climate of a building or understand the size of a room by hearing the echo or the reverberation of sound in it.

A hearing impaired person can read lip movements precisely and understand what is being said apart from observing and interpreting facial expressions most minutely. He can also feel the vibrations in the floor to understand various movements taking place in the building.

Therefore, what can be done in a building to make it as usable, as pleasurable and as experiential to a sensory organ impaired or a physically handicapped person as to a person without any such handicap?

A building can contribute a lot in the life of the person who lives in it. It can make it functionally miserable or functionally pleasurable. To satisfy the latter, a building must address the issue at at least three levels.

At the first level, a responsive configuration of spaces in a building should support these additionally sensitive senses and the cues. At the second level, the physical shape and size (dimensions) of the spaces should accommodate the activities and specific needs of the disabled.

At the third level it must address the issue of surface detailing – how the spaces are ‘clothed’ and ‘dressed’. Appropriate use of materials, textures and colours along with appropriate treatment of its elements shall determine the surface detailing. Hence, all the elements like the plan, floors, walls, windows, windows, doors, rooms, courtyard, etc. should precisely and subtly enhance the cues, the senses are looking for.

Design spaces that are not just functional, but pleasurable too, for all

We always look for a point of reference in a building to respond and behave in a particular space. An edge defines a space for all of us. It could be the edge of a fragrance or of a temperature or of a texture. It could be an edge of a wall or of a sound. It could also be a visual edge – beyond which one cannot see. An edge could be felt between spaces with still air and the breeze flowing. There could also be an edge of light and its spread. It could be an edge of shade also. For a visually impaired, an edge which can be touched and felt or heard, is a constant reference. For a hearing or speech impaired, the edge would be defined by the extent of vision. Spaces and their hierarchies are defined by the edges and their position in relation to each other. Edges also set a rhythm in space.

An edgeless space becomes infinity


Vision is one of the most important senses that perceives a lot of information through the cues available in that medium. Almost all phenomenon, event, or objects have a visual cue also. Vision impairedness means that a lot of information cannot be seen. Hence other senses take over and ‘see’ the ‘invisible’.

By touching the surface and feeling its temperature difference, a person can ‘see’ the difference between the inside and outside of a building and can respond accordingly. Hence surface coating materials like plasters and claddings should enhance the different temperatures associated with the spaces they are in. For instance, a harder stone like finish in the exterior would immediately take on the temperature of the external atmosphere. Similarly, softer lime, brick or terra-cotta like finish would suppress the extremity of temperatures and could be used in internal faces of interior spaces.

The sense of touch, when interpreted in a building, is in its surface treatment. It is felt by the texture and the temperature of the surface. A visually impaired person can ‘see’ the stairs and negotiate them more easily if the stairs have a different texture (preferable more rough in case of a floor) than the rest of the floor.

To transcend a functional building and make it experiential, a space for the visually impaired should have tactile experiences. Rich carving on pillars, relief work on walls and floors – something which can be touched and felt must be built. One of the unhappy contributions of the modernist attempts in architecture, at least in India, has been that the surfaces have been made flat and bland. The textures of walls and pillars with their engravings have been filled and made smooth, plain and bland with RCC. Most modern buildings are full of square, rectangular and circular smooth finished, bland columns. Wall surfaces are barren and flat. Our contemporary buildings are erasing the very memory of the tactile experiences which were very richly engraved in the temples of Khajurao or Hampi or the palaces of Fatehpur Sikri. It is not as if the vocabulary of RCC does not allow these textures to come into play. Precast columns of RCC in certain modern buildings like the hall of technology at Pragati Maidan at New Delhi can be cited as an example. But they are very few. Mies van der Rohe, a great European modern architect once said in support of the minimalist intervention: ‘Less is more’. But perhaps, less is more if it is not bland. As Robert Venturi, an American architect, very rightly critiqued Rohe, ‘Less is a bore,’ in this context. A tree is like a column in the open space – a pier that supports the sky above it. (If we cut all the trees the sky would certainly fall!). Each tree trunk has a texture, a shape, a form that any sensory disabled could also comprehend. We must somehow get the feeling of the tree in the columns and piers of buildings.

Courtyards could be planned with proper analysis of wind and sun to get the desired enhanced effect of their hierarchy. Presence of fragrant flowers here, would convey the presence of ‘outside’ in ‘inside’ (which is what the courtyard is all about!) to a visually impaired person. The subtle differences of temperature in spaces within a building which will be enhanced by both (wind and plants) would let the presence of a courtyard be more profoundly felt.

The graphics could be in Braille, brightly coloured and lit. They should be placed at the normal shoulder level so that they can be ‘read’ with the hand. Sound reflective surfaces in the interior would help the visually as well as hearing impaired persons in identifying, placing and orienting themselves appropriately inside a building. For the visually impaired it would convey the size of space more clearly and for those with low hearing power, the spaces will be more usable. This enhancement could also be achieved by using sound focusing and reflective shapes like concave planes and walls. Sometimes they use a stick as their ‘hand’ to ‘feel’. It is like an extended hand. Its tapping sound gives vital information to them about the space they are in. The floor of the building space could sound ‘hollow’ in the middle and ‘solid’ at the edge. The change in tapping sound from solid to hollow will indicate to them their location within a space – edge, middle or intermediate. The ‘extended-hand’ lets them feel the texture of the surface it is tapped on. An enhanced texture in surfaces upto the shoulder level in the spaces could be desirable.

Apart from introducing sound reflective floors which can also let them know about the movement of other people, pleasing sounds can be introduced into the building fabric. Sound of wind bells and willows near the entrance, presence of falling water or fountains in a courtyard are some examples. There can be some provision to attract the birds in the garden/roof terrace or a balcony of the house so that the environment can reverberate with their chirping in the mornings and evenings. This would introduce a different audible sense of time within a day in the building. Such detailing would also make the life in a building more pleasurable for them. A visually impaired person can feel the presence and movement of the sun in the warmth of sunlight. The windows and other openings should be designed to let the sunlight fall on the working planes and give such freedom to perceive time and its movement to the user.

One of the crucial aspects of human life which distinguishes it from other living beings is the ability to communicate through a language – spoken as well as written. But how do the speech impaired people communicate? Are they lesser human beings?

No. They are just different in the way that they communicate not through a spoken, but a visual or written language. But they do have a language to communicate. Just like the hearing impaired, speech impaired also have a better sense of visual and touch or even hearing.

The spoken word can travel everywhere, to your front, back or sideways, upstairs or downstairs. The distance upto which its attributes can be heard depend on the intensity of voice and the reflective medium surrounding it. Language for a speech impaired is not ‘spoken’ but ‘enacted’ visually.

A visually communicated word can travel only across– mostly to your front. Its intensity relative to a distance cannot be controlled. So, it can be perceived upto the limit the human eye can ‘see’ the expressions and gestures of another person.

A building should provide space within its folds for the people to communicate. The room interior for the speech impaired should be such that it promotes the ‘across’ communication. The furniture could be arranged such that more people can face each other rather than sit sideways. The dining table could be a circular round or a square rather than a rectangle so that all the people sitting can face each other. Communicating while moving along pathways and corridors is a pleasurable experience. But for a speech impaired, this could be difficult as two people while moving along a corridor (who intend to talk or communicate) are always placed sideways (and not ‘across’). Hence provision of small ‘pause-spaces’ along the corridors and pathways where at least two people can pause and communicate while moving could be useful. The interior and exterior spaces of a building should not be very large because the whole idea here, is to enact and see (the expressions and gestures) rather than to hear the spoken word. The distance between any two persons should not exceed the limit upto which an eye can comfortably read the expressions and this determines the size of spaces. Here also the spaces and their directions should be graphically very well placed, lit and presented.

The rooms and spaces in a building should also be visually very well connected. The public meeting spaces like class-rooms and auditoriums should not have a straight-row seating arrangements. The row seating could be arranged in a horse-shoe shape with the capacity and size such that all those sitting can see the expressions of each other comfortably. In cases where a visual connection is not possible, certain mechanically operated simple devices like pull-rope-bells, electrical-bells or lamps could be used to communicate an event or an action. ‘Adjacent’ is also the communication of avoidance. ‘Across’ is a communication of openness, warmth, directness. Wouldn’t it be desirable for the ‘able’ too?

A hearing impaired person would usually have a good sense of vision and touch. Hearing impaired are mostly speech impaired too. They cannot comprehend sound. For them, the building elements relating to these senses should be very well designed. Spaces and instructions for their use should be brightly lit and visually well connected. An ordinary person can take the cue from the squeak of the gate that someone is coming. A hearing impaired person’s living spaces could be visually very well connected to the entrance, so that an entrance and an exit could be noticed immediately. Similarly, blind corners and spaces in corridors and passage should be totally avoided to prevent ‘soundless’ accidents. They can also ‘read’ the motion of shadows on the walls and other surfaces very quickly to understand movements taking place around them. Such surfaces should be provided where shadows of movements (of people and other objects) could be cast naturally. They would be particularly useful at blind corners. Textured edges and use of different noticeable colours at the floor level differences would always help them in identifying the beginning or termination of a level change, thereby avoiding accidents. Auditorium and meeting spaces for them should be designed such that they can clearly ‘read’ the expressions of each other and the person on the stage to communicate. Language for them is not ‘heard’ but ‘seen’.

For a speech or hearing impaired person, an experience of a space can be made enriching by creating a visual play of light and shade. As the French architect, Le Corbusier once said, ‘Architecture is the skillful, accurate and magnificent play of masses seen in light.’ Though most western concepts of space define it in relation to light, in contrast, oriental traditions define it in terms of darkness. As the Japanese novelist, Jun’ichiro Tanizaki remarks in his brilliant essay, In Praise of Shadows,’ ...And so it has come to be that the beauty of a Japanese room depends on a variation of shadows, heavy shadows against light shadows, - it has nothing else’. For them the intimacy of a relation is best in the darkness (shade). Though it is important to understand the perceptional difference of light and the dark, perhaps both are essential to space. The drama of light and shade in a space takes you to a different world. A world where some thing is revealed and something remains unrevealed. Light reveals and the shade unreveals. As the great Mexican poet, Octovio Paz says, ‘The senses ... let us hear the inaudible and see the invisible’. Manifest and non-manifest. This interplay of what can be seen and not seen; what can be heard and not heard; what can be touched and not touched is what a person discovers in a space.

There are other kinds of disabilities where the sense of touch is not perceptible, like leprosy. For a leprosy patient, one of the most frightening and dangerous injuries that can happen is a cut developing into secondary infections. It can even be a minor cut from a door handle Therefore all such edges which can be the potential cause of an injury should be avoided. Due to permanent weakness, low-height supports that help them in getting up or sitting down are preferred by them. There could be specially designed low-height furniture – tables, stools, settees, beds, etc. which can double-up as low-height supports. The surface of all these ‘supports should not be very smooth as then they might slip. Storage spaces like lofts should be avoided as they are neither accessible nor practical for them. Negotiating a level difference is a big hurdle they face. Hence multiple levels should be avoided. In any case, such level differences should never be placed near a door or a gate. Door jambs and frame posts should be slightly textured to provide some grip while moving through them.

Excessive sensitivity towards heat can be subsided for such patients by climatologically placing their rooms for maximum ventilation. Building materials and their usage could be such that a building remains passively cool even in hot climatic zones. This can be achieved by planning compact spaces, placing openings along north and east, and providing more shadowy spaces. Use of thermally insulative roofs and walls would also help.

The utensils, bolts, handles, taps, etc. should be designed such they can be lifted or operated without using fingers (which might not be there at all, in case of a leprosy patient) and have rounded seams and edges, Wrist or elbow operated fittings would benefit the leprosy patients as well as handicapped persons. A product designer’s input would be of great importance here. The elements in built spaces – walls, floor, doors, windows, should have all their edges rounded and smoothened so that any potential injury is avoided altogether.

Water fountains could be planned near the window and other ventilation opening to subside the dust inflow to the building interior (and provide cool breeze at the same time). Dust can create eye infections which go unnoticed and are detected only when a leprosy patient is about to lose the eyes. Providing proper green cover, the plants around the building would also keep the dust level low. Shrubs and bushes with dense foliage near openings would also filter the dust inflow considerably. If they are fragrant and colourful, some more pleasing sensory dimensions would be there to experience in the spaces in a building.

Physical disability of limbs – hands or legs can make life miserable in an insensitively designed building. Disability in legs would, in a way, make the person feel the distance to be more between spaces and persons. It is a psychological feeling, but a building can help getting around this problem. Rooms and spaces can be planned to be closely interrelated and compactly spaced. The level differences could be minimised and if this is not possible then they could be broken down into smaller level differences. A long staircase could have several intermediate landings which will give breathing space while moving through the level differences and thereby reducing the psychological distance. The introduction of extended length of treads and landings would mean more safety and comfort for the physically handicapped. The consequential ‘delay’ in the movement would relieve the user of the tension to move faster and set a pace with a comfortable repose for them. Here, provision of small seating spaces with, if possible, a good view would further release the feeling of distance and make it bearable.

Use of sufficiently wide door openings for the living rooms and toilets and ramps which can accommodate crutches or wheelchairs comfortably without hurting the hands, would certainly help the physically handicapped. Level differences can be detailed out in ramps rather than steps. The ramps should have the minimum slope possible to drive the wheelchair effortlessly, without any outside help. It should also have sufficient texture to induce friction and avoid any slippage. Ramps and stairs should have a slope that a person feels secure and does not slip accidentally.

Use of good grip and continuous rail along stairs, ramps and other movement spaces would always help. The material used should be thermally insulative so that it does not become too hot or cold to touch during extreme weather conditions. Floor surfaces in toilets and rooms should not be too smooth so as to avoid any accidental slippage. Corners and turning areas inside the rooms and along movement spaces should be sufficiently wide enough to let wheelchairs turn without any hindrances. In fact turnings should be kept to a minimum. But if they are to be provided, care should be taken in the layout that a person need not take a frequent acute angled, ‘U’ or right angled turn while moving. Floor surface treatment should not give a bumpy ride to a wheelchair using person. Gaps between floor tiles should not allow the wheel-rim to bump in-between. Gratings along drains should not be so wide that the crutches might slip into them. Door operations should be smooth and effortless with slow, self-closing devices.

If a physically handicapped person can climb up to a floor effortlessly with a sense of accomplishment, it would give her a great amount of confidence and self respect. This sense of accomplishment can be achieved in various ways. A room which looks distant but can be reached through a short cut; the split level where even climbing very few steps would give a sense of a higher vertical movement, are some examples. All such design conceptions would work at a subconscious level in the mind of a building user.

The spaces should be designed such that they are functional and convenient to use. Yet they must go beyond this. They must make life enjoyable and events memorable.

Designing spaces for all

Perhaps architecture should let the person be one’s own self. It should not force the person to be somebody else. Buildings for the able make the disabled more aware of their disability. It makes them feel their disability as a loss. This inherently introduces a desire to be somebody else (‘able’ ?). Architecture for the disabled would never make them painfully feel a disability as a ‘loss’. In fact, if would let them cherish what they already have with them. After all the actual ‘material’ of perception is not lost by a disabled. It is only different. The essence of sunlight, warmth, is still felt, even though not seen by a visually impaired.

A person with sensory or limb related disability from the very birth would not actually feel any ‘loss’. Here the ‘given’ would be enough to complete the ‘totality’ as there would not be any parameter in the perception to compare with.

But the same might not be true in case of a disability occurring later in life. Perhaps then, the perceptional difference before and after the disability would be experienced as a loss. Here the pain of this loss cannot be ignored. A building, here, can contribute by not letting the loss be underlined every time it is being used. Perhaps this would make the pain of the loss, bearable.

The attempt of architecture should be to have an ‘inclusive’ building where the able and the disabled are both the users of a building. The ‘exclusive’ would divide the world into two parts – that which belongs to the able and the one that belongs to the disabled. Able and disabled are the relative terms to each other depending on one’s point of view. These two groups of ‘haves’ and ‘have-nots’ would always tend to be compared. The ‘haves’ will be seen as the better and the ‘have-nots’ as the lesser. This would subject them to pity and restriction. This is what happens now.

Thus the ‘exclusive’ approach would tend the able to view the disabled not as a ‘different other’ but as a ‘lesser other’. A different other is like any other individual, irrespective of his or her physical abilities. Hence the exclusiveness of a building for the able or the disabled would perhaps be detrimental to the whole idea of architecture as something to be experienced by all. A building should be inclusive (or exclusive!) for both.

Modern buildings are usually exclusive – mostly for the able and rarely for the disabled. This is primarily because the disabled are the numerical minority. But the buildings that are designed for both are most rare. The reasons are perhaps the lack of awareness and an insensitivity or apathy towards the disabled.

One should not forget that the so called able in their every day life sometimes do become temporarily disabled. An able may not be able to hear when the sound of a machine blankets an important conversation. Numbness of hands and feet due to excessive cold or side effect of a medicine could be temporary, but the very loss of feeling of touch is certainly felt for a while. Glare sometimes does curtain the vision. Cough and cold might sometimes temporarily affect the sense of smell and the ability to speak. A wound in the leg might make a person unable to walk. And we all age, when our sensory perceptions become slow to respond to a cue. An able can then become vulnerable to accidents, inactivity and depression due to even a temporary disability. In case of an able, the perceptional response due to this temporary disability is quite similar to that of a person in whose case disability occurs later in life. Hence the temporary disabilities are actually temporary losses in perception for the able.

It is not as if special attention to details in a building for the disabled will render it useless or wasteful to the able. In fact, it would be much more comfortable, experiential and sensuous for the able. This will be due to the fact that an enhanced sense-cue response is planned in such a building. And definitely, such a building could be used by a much larger number of people – freely and comfortably – by the able or the disabled. It would also benefit users of all ages – from a child to an aged.

There is a misconception that somehow the buildings that will accommodate all, and especially the disabled, are costlier to be build. In fact, special design details for the impaired do not necessarily cost more to build (often, they are more cost-effective and eco-friendly alternatives to the conventional). Most of these special details are just different, but sensitive variants. And they are not particularly expensive to be built. This should hold good for most of the new (yet to be built) buildings. But existing buildings might require a higher cost for the change-over owing to their inflexibility and insensitivity in their original design itself.

All public buildings must be inclusive buildings. Service spaces like hospitals, railway stations, airports, bus terminals, offices, public utilities like public toilets, drinking water facilities, residential spaces like multi-storey and other housing complexes, education buildings of school, colleges and universities, leisure spaces like parks, walkways, gardens, libraries, and other spots of tourism, like museums, monuments, zoos, commercial spaces like markets, community spaces like theaters, cinema halls, marriage halls, religious spaces like mosques, temples, etc. must be designed for all.

The effort of an architect or a designer, should not be restricted to the functional ‘barrierfree’ spaces alone. In fact the attempt could be to make the act of living in the buildings more pleasurable and experiential for the disabled or the able, in their own right.

We all have a right to live – with dignity, respect and pleasure. Disabled are no others. They are some of us. ‘They’ (we) must experience the joy of living in ‘their’ (our) own way.

If only a building is able to make a person live with joy and pleasure, it would transcend itself and become the architecture for the disabled and the able and hence for all. In fact the distinction would, then, become absurd.

Armed Forces and Disability

Most nations have been expressing their sense of indebtedness to men who became disabled fighting wars. It is said that in ancient Greece pensions were offered to soldiers who were permanently disabled, perhaps to keep them from mutiny. Nearly 300 years ago a separate institution, Chelsea Hospital, was set up in London to treat lame and infirm soldiers. In the USA the first arrangements to look after disabled ex-servicemen were taken in 1811.

With World War I (1914–1919) the concept was accepted that compensation should be offered to armed personnel for injuries received in military service. After the War, medical, surgical and hospital treatment as well as vocational rehabilitation services were offered to disabled soldiers. But it was during and after World War II (1939–1945) that the approach to disability in the armed forces changed for the better. Successful adjustment to postwar living became important through systematic programmes of education and training, finding re-employment with the help of loans. Service-connected disabilities, based on their nature and degree of severity, even when received during peace time were considered suitable for entitlement.

Improvement in transporting the injured from the battlefields to places where they could receive medical attention, combined with more effective drugs and limb and life saving surgical operat

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