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.