COVID-19 exposes failure of the government’s Accessible India Campaign

A medical staff wearing a PPE suit shifts a patient in a wheelchair near a COVID-19 ward at a hospital in New Delhi on 12 August 2020. Prakash Singh/AFP/Getty Image
02 October, 2020

In December 2015, the central government launched the Accessible India Campaign, or Sugamya Bharat, with the lofty aim of ensuring universal accessibility to civic infrastructure, both physical and digital. Over the next four years, the programme missed most of its targets. As COVID-19 spread in India, the programme’s sluggish pace resulted in people with disabilities—almost twenty seven million,who constitute 2.2 percent of the country’s population as per the 2011 census—feeling its effects disproportionately hard. 

The most glaring shortcoming has been that some of India’s largest public hospitals have remained inaccessible to people with disabilities during the pandemic. “Many cases came to our notice, in which COVID-19 patients with disability suffered due to lack of infrastructure,” Madhu Singhal, a managing trustee of Mitra Jyothi—an NGO in Bangalore that works with disabled people—said. “No toilet facilities were available for them. There was no infrastructure for smooth accessibility. They were not being attended to properly because they needed helping hands always for basic things.” The fear of contracting the infection through touch and the new norms of social distancing kept hospital workers away from disabled patients whom they might have otherwise assisted physically.  

The inaccessibility of hospitals has been a long-standing problem. In January 2013, the disability-rights activist Satendra Singh filed a petition with the Chief Commissioner for Persons with Disabilities—an office under the ministry of social justice and empowerment—asking the All India Institute of Medical Sciences, Delhi to make its premises more accessible. Singh is also an associate professor of physiology at the University College of Medical Sciences in Delhi, and practices at the associated Guru Teg Bahadur Hospital. Singh said that he has worked since 2011 to make GTB Hospital more accessible. However, he said that AIIMS, which is considered a premier institution,lacked toilets, ramps and access to lifts for disabled people. “If this is the situation in a‘centre of excellence’, imagine the ground reality in other hospitals and institutions,” he said.“Isn’t this complete failure of the Accessible India Campaign? In this pandemic, disabled-unfriendly hospitals can make people with disabilities more vulnerable, especially those with locomotor and visual disabilities, who rely on touch.”

Life has become much harder even for disabled people who have not contracted the SARS-CoV-2 virus or fallen ill in any way. Shopping, working and commuting has become much more difficult. Raj Kumar Pal, who is blind, said that once the coronavirus outbreak took hold in Delhi, he was forced to take autorickshaws or cabs from his home in Karala in north-west Delhi to his office in Rajendra Nagar in central Delhi.These more expensive modes of transport were the only way Pal could stay safe.“It is very difficult for a visually impaired person to maintain social distancing on the bus,” he said. He also feared that he would not be able to access seats reserved for disabled people on a full bus and he would have had to wait a long time for a reasonably empty bus. He could not take the metro because its tactile pathswere less than adequate. Tactile paths are the stretches of yellow tiles with raised ridges to guide people with visual impairments. “In the metro, they provide an attendant, which could be risky for me as well as the attendant in this coronavirus pandemic,” Pal said.“If the tactile paths were perfect, I could have used the metro services without any contact.” 

Delhi’s accessibility infrastructure was inadequate before the COVID-19 pandemic. Wheelchair ramps blocked by wicket gates, billboards and other encroachments are a common sight. Satguru Rathi, who used to live in Delhi till last year, recounted his bad experiences with the city’s poor accessibility infrastructure. Rathi, who is blind, said that the tactile paths in the city were so poorly designed that he often collided with poles and other obstacles. He had particularly scathing criticisms of the metro. “In recent years, the Delhi Metro has earned a lot of praise for being the ‘most accessible transport system’ but the reality is far from this glossy picture,” he said. “Many stations do not have ramps for wheelchair users on the entrance gates. At many places, the tactile path made for navigation of people with vision loss is misleading and sometimes I myself have accidentally hit the poles or other objects like shop setups, poles used to make queues etc.” He once fell down onto the metro’s rail track because he could not judge the gap between the platform and the train. 

Navigating the city became much more difficult in the months of lockdowns and social distancing. Avoiding physical contact with potentially infected people or surfaces is especially hard for people with visual impairments who rely on touch in public spaces. “It is very difficult to ask for help while commuting to or from your work as no one would like to give you a helping hand because of fear of the virus,” Rathi said. “It is very difficult to go to the market as finding the right shop is itself a tedious task and assistance is needed most of the time. Most shopkeepers won't let us touch and feel the products because of fear of spreading the virus.”

According to experts working in the field of accessibility, the Accessible India Campaign has been  a complete failure. Arman Ali, the executive director of the National Centre for Promotion of Employment for Disabled People, said, “The enactment of the Rights of Persons with Disabilities Act, 2016 was momentous in the history of disability movement in India. The act lays down a pathway for the fulfilment of the nation’s commitment under the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. However, the enactment has been reduced to a momentary significance because of the sheer absence of a genuine political motive to implement it.” He added that the coronavirus pandemic showed that the act was not complied with in letter or in spirit.

The NCPEDP released a survey of more than a thousand respondents in May, which showed that people with disabilities were finding it difficult to get medical attention and necessary information about COVID-19 even as they were dealing with financial hardship and job losses. Among those interviewed, 67 percent said they did not have access to doorstep delivery of essentials by the government. In April, just after the first extension of the nationwide lockdown, Ali wrote to the prime minister and the National Disaster Management Authority enumerating these problems. He did not get any response. 

“There was complete omission to include accessibility as a key component in the development of government’s approach towards the pandemic,” Ali said. “The information and communication related to the virus and its prevention were not accessible to all. The various guidelines released by the ministry of health andfamily welfare were restricted in its reach.” He said that the special needs of disabled people was missing from the national discourse. “The basic provisions of food and essentials were denied for mobility issues and the basic services of healthcare and education remained affected as the lockdown led to the closure of schools, colleges, labs, clinics, blood banks etc,” he said.“While many disabled people faced health risks because of this, in education, the digital alternative was either not accessible or financially viable in rural areas where the maximum population of disabled children resides.”

On 27 March, in the middle of the first national lockdown, the central government’s department of persons with disabilities issued a comprehensive set of guidelines to the commissioners for persons with disabilities of all states and union territories. The NCPEDP report called it an “excellent set of guidelines” because they enumerated how people with disabilities struggle with access to information, medical care and regular care, essential services and even sign language, peer-support networks and counselling during the lockdown. However, not all states had appointed commissioners and so there was no uniform accountability to ensure that the guidelines were followed. “The implementation of the act would have ensured that the structural framework to fulfil these roles is in place,” Ali said.

The accessibility problem has not been restricted to the physical sphere. Since March, the government has released a lot of information about COVID-19 and precautionary measures, but not always in accessible formats. Singh, the disability-rights activist, wrote to the social-justice ministryon 22 March asking that this information be made accessible. 

For people like Rathi and Pal, moving tasks online was fraught with trouble. “I was trying to pay the electricity bill online because the counter is about one-and-a-half kilometres away,” Pal said. “I could not read the captcha letters because of my low vision. I always need the assistance to read captcha letters.” People who are blind or have other visual impairments navigate the internet with tools like screen readers that convert website content to speech or Braille displays. However, these are ineffective against captcha codes, which are designed ensure that the user is human. Many websites provide an audio captcha option for those who have trouble with visual captcha cues. Subhash Chandra Vashishth, the director of Svayam ­- Global Centre for Inclusive Environments, said that many government or public websites, especially of banks and online-services platforms, continued to use only visual captcha codes despite legal provisions that mandate alternate accessible options. “Such captchas are prohibiting the visually impaired people access to information needed during COVID-19 pandemic,” he said. “During lockdown or post lockdown, this has been a big problem for them.”

Government websites were  designed to be compliant with the intermediate “AA” level of the international standard of Web Content Accessibility Guidelines 2.0—abbreviated to WCAG 2.0 AA—because information and communication technology was one of the cornerstones of the Accessible India Campaign. Moreover, the Rights of Persons with Disabilities Act requires all PDF documents to be available as electronic publications or in formats that can be read by optical character readers. However, Vashishth said, government websites did not remain compliant for long as information was added to them. “Every day, so many documents are being added on to these websites which are scanned images of signed letters, policies, advertisements, notices etcetera,” he said.

New government technologies to deal with COVID-19 were developed carrying the same accessibility blind spots. In May, various media reports had highlighted the limitations of Aarogya Setu app. The National Association for the Blind gathered feedback on how it was not properly accessible to people with visual impairments. Prashant Ranjan Verma, the general secretary of the association, said that based on the feedback to the social justice and health ministries, the National Informatics Centre made improvements to the app. “I would not say this is perfectly accessible for the visually impaired but some improvement is there,” Verma said.“Mobile apps should be tested and certified for accessibility, that is, ease of use for everyone including different disabilities. The Aarogya Setu App has not been tested or received any certification as per available information.”

Other new information has come out in formats not accessible to all. In August, the disability-rights activist Singh filed a petition in the Delhi High Court that challenged the public consultation process for the National Data Management Policy on several grounds, including that the document was inaccessible to people with disabilities because it required image captcha.    

Problems of digital accessibility have become much bigger for students in rural areas with attempts to use online classes as schools remained closed. Teachers and experts involved in the process said that there were not enough accessible books in different languages for students with sight disabilities. “The state education boards and other publishers, who publish books in English and vernacular languages, continue to use specific language fonts instead of UNICODE fonts,” Vashishth said. “It means the book won’t be read by the screen reader if the user doesn’t have that font. If the master copy of the book is in UNICODE, it is much easier to convert them in to Braille books or reading books without having to retype the whole book. But these publishers haven’t changed their traditional ways of working to incorporate accessibility.”

Shivani Gupta, the founder of AccesAbility, an NGO that works on inclusion of people with disabilities, said, “When you provide accessibility, it needs to be provided in a more holistic and a well-planned manner. A consultation should be done with persons with disabilities and the organisations to understand the requirements. Until the government considers accessibility as a prerequisite for inclusion, and mandatory requirement for them, it is not going to work, because accessibility is a very cross cutting aspect.” 

According to Vashishth, the campaign was hindered by the fact that it was led by the social justiceministry and not taken seriously by other ministries—the ministry of urban development for buildings, the ministries of road transport and highways, civil aviation and railways for transport, and the ministry of electronic and information technology for information and communication. Organisations for people with disabilities had already provided inputs to the Harmonised Guidelines and Space Standards prepared by ministry of urban development. The Bureau of Indian Standards had published the National Building Code 2016, containing standards to be followed for accessibility in buildings. “For each vertical, there is already a nodal ministry,” Vashishth said. “However, they were not even involved in the planning or implementation process of the campaign. Ideally, nodal ministries i.e. for should have been at the forefront leading their respective verticals.”

Moreover, the centre could not pursue its accessibility agenda without support from states because building is a state subject. “Many states failed to even adopt building regulations compliant to the uniform accessibility requirements of National Building Code 2016,” Vashishth said. “As a result, even today, substantial number of new buildings are coming up sans any accessibility compliance. This is a blatant violation of the Rights of Persons with Disabilities Act, and is punishable under the law.”

Vashishth added that the approach of the Accessible India Campaign to physical environments was fundamentally unsustainable. He explained that a team of auditors along with professional architects, civil engineers and two members with disabilities conduct access audits of buildings. They then submitted reportsto the DEPWD, which sent the reports to states or departments for required action. “This approach may have been good for phase-I, to raise awareness in society as well as in implementing agencies,” Vashishth said. “However, it looked as if, since disabled people were asking for accessible environments, the onus of conducting access audits across India was shifted on to them or to the empanelled access-auditors with no accountability of officials responsible to design it accessible from scratch or retrofit an old building.”

Vashishth said that the government should not depend completely on non-government or disabled peoples’ organisationsfor access audits and recommendations.He told me that the onus was with state implementing agencies, which control nearly 80 percent of public infrastructure. According to Vashishth, personnel of these agencies need to be trained so that they plan, design and build with accessibility in mind. 

Another obstacle is funding. “Initially, the DEPWD was to fund all the access audit implementation,” Vashishth said. “However, after some disbursements of funds, it was realised that the funds under the Scheme for Implementation of Persons with Disabilities Act could not suffice the requirement of funds even for identified buildings. Therefore, it was left to the departments, states to arrange their own funding to meet the mandate of law.”Again, the funding never materialised since this was not a priority for states. 

“Only handful of buildings were identified by states and forwarded for conducting access audits under AIC,” Vashishth added. “There are a large number of buildings, street infrastructure, websites, transportation system that remains inaccessible even today due to the lack of priority placement to accessibility. In lockdown, the plight of disabled people could have been minimised if all the implementation would have been there.”