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.”