Are public spaces safe for people with disabilities?

Acropolis Mall in Kolkata was lacking many mandatory facilities for evacuating individuals with special needs, bringing safety & rights violations of such people under the scanner

People with disabilities are India’s invisible minority. One of the main reasons they remain invisible is the inaccessible built environment. Even if there are some attempts to make few educational institutes or work-spaces barrier-free, spaces for recreation and leisure mostly remain out of bounds for Indians with special needs. 

The exemptions are the mega shopping malls in big cities that offer ramps, lifts and separate toilets for the disabled. Even the multiplex cinema halls earmark disabled-friendly seats, which are not available at single-screen theatres. As a result, such shopping malls remain an attraction to wheelchair users & their care-givers. 

But are these shopping malls equipped to deal with disasters like fire? A recent fire in the Acropolis Mall in Kolkata raised this burning question. 

With Kolkata’s soaring temperatures, individuals with disability prefer the mall to hangout. Although there were no casualties in the Acropolis Mall incident, can we imagine how wheelchair users would have been evacuated from the building? Were the evacuations chairs mandated by disaster management departments ready? 

Any expert on universal design can attest to the fact that disabled-friendly designs of built infrastructure do not only help wheelchair-users but also the elderly people, pregnant women and those suffering from temporary impairments or injuries. 

The Kolkata Municipal Corporation Building Rules, published in The Kolkata Gazette, Extraordinary on September 9, 2009, stipulated:

Notwithstanding anything contained elsewhere in these rules, there shall be provisions in all building plans of public utility buildings for disabled friendly devices like ramps with railing, toilet and drinking water facilities. Braille or auditory signals shall be provided in all lifts in accordance with the provisions of signage guideline laid down in the National Building Code.

In the Model Building By-law of the Town & Country Planning Organisation, Union Ministry of Urban Development, the portion on exit requirements in Chapter 7, Fire protection and fire safety requirements, clearly mentioned, “Ramps of slope of not more than one in 10 may be substituted for and shall comply with all the applicable requirements of all required stairways as to enclosure capacity and limiting dimensions. Larger slopes shall be provided for special uses but in no case greater than one in eight. For all slopes exceeding one in 10 and where the use is such as to involve danger of slipping, the ramp shall be surfaced with approved non-slipping material.” The document also advised: “Ramp shall lead directly to outside open space at ground level or courtyards of safe place.”

Although the provisions are mentioned in both the guidelines by the central and state governments, the Acropolis Mall has built no such ramp for emergency fire exits to help people with disabilities, especially those who are wheelchair-bound, and pregnant women escape with ease. 

Recounting the moments the fire broke out, Spandana Sen, an employee of an office in the building, told the news publication The Hindu:

We could smell smoke. All the people were being evacuated through one staircase. There was a pregnant lady who had to be carried down. 

Although there were no harm caused this time, carrying down a woman in such a situation puts more than one life in danger. “There are specific protocols regarding how to evacuate the most vulnerable people like the disabled and elderly during a disaster or accident. The question is whether such a huge mall run by a big business house maintained such protocols,” said Shampa Sengupta, a disability and gender rights activist. By protocols, she not only meant the ones that are followed during such a breakout, but also those that should have been followed during the construction of buildings used as public spaces. 

There should be designated primary and secondary evacuation routes wide enough for wheelchairs – proper ramps that are free of obstacles – ensuring accessibility for all, said Nayonika Chakraborty, assistant professor of architecture, Techno India University. “Training of mall staff on protocols for assisting disabled individuals, including the use of evacuation chairs, should be conducted to ensure efficient and safe evacuations.” 

If buildings are constructed without facilities to help people with disability, are public spaces really safe for them to freely roam about and spend a day in leisure? With majority of the buildings that host cultural activities in urban spaces not making basic infrastructural changes, leisure remains inaccessible for a section of people. 

Moreover, the fact that Acropolis Mall provides office spaces to many companies, the safety of the people working there have also come under the scanner. We need to ask the government how buildings that do not provide basic safety to citizens were permitted to be built, especially to run hugely profit making businesses. 

The government must take responsibility as the Indian law states: “The appropriate government and the local authorities shall take measures to promote and protect the rights of all persons with disabilities to have a cultural life and to participate in recreational activities equally with others.”

Souvick Roy is a research scholar at Tezpur University. Views expressed are the author’s own and don’t necessarily reflect those of Down To Earth.

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