Victor Pineda named by US President Obama to the US Access Board, which promotes disability rights through accessible design and development of standards for transportation, built environment, communication and information technology was in India recently. He spoke to Rema Nagarajan about the need for research universities, civil society and the government to work together to bring sustainable change:
Why do you say this is a historic opportunity for creating accessibility?
Never in the history of humanity have we experienced such rapid urbanisation.
We are experiencing tremendous growth of built environment. In the next 20 years, we will double all built environment on this planet.So we have a tremendous opportunity to build it right.
All my discussions in India with architects have shown that the cost of adding provisions for accessibility is marginal, about 1% of the total construction cost. This 1% cost creates a lifetime of returns as the building is open to more people, employment is open to more people and people with disabilities can become tax payers who contribute to the growth of the nation. We cannot continue to build in a way that is not accessible as it will cost three to four times more to fix the mistakes. So the time to act is now, not yesterday, not tomorrow.
How can an entire society’s attitude towards disability be changed?
It is really up to everyone to create opportunities to include. But this cannot be done by voluntary measures.
You need a very strong regime for enforcement. You need to have the authority to exercise your right and obtain injunctive relief because discrimination or exclusion is a form of violence.
Amartya Sen’s framework of capabilities greatly influenced my doctoral work.Sen says development is about giving people the capabilities to live the life they value.
Disability is not the property of an individual, rather it is the experience of an individual in a particular environment. So, in a sense, the environment is disabling the individual.
So people with disabilities are being deprived of the capabilities to live the life they value.
They are being deprived of their fundamental freedoms.
How can governments solve a problem of social attitude? Governments cannot solve the issue alo ne but they do play an important role to structure and create the terms in which meaningful change can be brought about. Public funding is meant for everybody .
Any construction project that has even one rupee from the public sector should be used to make the building fully accessible.
Private locations that have a public use like restaurants, theatres and so on built after a particular date should also be accessible and those built before the date should not be given permission to renovate till they bring it up to the accessibility code. No public fund should be used in a way that discriminates against people with disabilities.
Where are the huge funds required to create accessibility?
India is a very rich country. There are resources but they are not being allocated. It is a simple issue of elevating the cost of non-compliance. If private property owners can be sued for non-compliance and if public officials know that they will be reprimanded or fined for non-compliance, they will self-regulate. Discrimination has no place in the cities of the future because it will lower production capacity. When everybody can contribute their talent you will increase productivity. People who say it costs too much don’t know that it costs much more to do nothing. It costs much more to keep people non-productive.
You have been to 60 countries. Is there any city that is fully accessible?
Berkeley city in California is probably the closest because of a lot of work by disability activists. But accessibility is not an issue of the developed versus developing countries. It is an issue of political priorities. I have seen examples of serious efforts towards accessibility in very poor countries.
For instance, in Yerevan, the capital of Armenia, they allow disability organizations to identify and prioritize the barriers in the city and the contractor hired to remove the barriers would not be paid till civil society signed off on the work. This allowed civil society to do quality control.
Today, technical solutions for accessibility exist and the issue is no more about how do we make something accessible, but about are we willing to make the decision to make it happen. It is the political willingness to make it happen.
How accessible were the cities you visited in India?
I visited Mumbai, Varanasi, Agra and Delhi and there were difficulties being a wheelchair user. This is my second visit to India. I was 13 when I first came here. My father brought me to Satya Sai Baba thinking he could cure me. Later, I realized that it wasn’t I who needed to be cured but it was society. Parents of children with disability face a lot of fear and they feel alone when they have to confront disability because they don’t see all the possibility, beauty and talent.
By: Reema Nagarajan