In the 2007 session of the UN General Assembly, the member states unanimously decided to observe 20th February as the World Day of Social Justice, to bring public attention and mobilise political will to promote social development for all.
The theme of this year’s World Social Justice Day is ‘Achieving Social Justice through Formal Employment’. However, for the 26.8 million persons with disabilities (PWDs) living in India, social integration and access to formal employment remain a mere dream due to inaccessible infrastructure and transportation systems. The implications of this exclusion are not limited to the arena of social justice, but also affect the country’s economy. According to the ILO, the economic cost of not including the disabled population in the workforce can be as high as 7 per cent of a country’s GDP.
An inclusive, accessible, affordable, and safe transportation system is the first step towards the social integration of PWDs – for access to education, healthcare services, leisure, or reaching their workplace. While work from home opportunities during the pandemic opened up avenues for persons with limited mobility, the benefits have largely been restricted to Europe and North America. In India, where most of the disabled population is concentrated in rural areas, and the literacy rates among the disabled remain alarmingly low, work from home facilities failed to bring any substantial change for PWDs. Therefore, inclusive transport remains an essential prerequisite for breaking the link between poverty and disability.
Despite the Rights of Persons Disabilities Act (RPWD), 2016 explicitly directing the Central and State governments to provide accessible public transport systems for persons with disabilities, the ground reality indicates that there is much to be done.
Lack of Accessible Transit Modes
Activist Kajal Sharma, a woman with cerebral palsy herself, highlights that it is not just the travel journey, but also the transit stops that need to be accessible. “What is the use of low-floor buses if their ramps don’t work properly or if my wheelchair cannot reach the bus stop due to the uneven footpath?”. Her experience is not an isolated one. Wheelchair users face discrimination because of inaccessible bus stops and the attitude of co-passengers and bus crew. Often if a wheelchair user is unaccompanied by a caregiver, conductors refuse to stop the bus or get down to help them board the bus.
While certain bus fleet and Metro coaches may be accessible, first and end-mile connectivity can be a daunting challenge. “How can I reach the bus or metro station if I don’t have an accessible lift in my building or the facility of accessible cabs?”, says Kajal. Her brother Parul, an accessibility consultant adds, “It’s not easy for the carers to lift a person along with their wheelchair and put them in a cab; neither is it a dignified option. Persons with disabilities and their families deserve better. It is high time that the government mandates car manufacturers and cab companies to provide the option for wheelchair-friendly cabs.”
Attitudinal Barriers and Public Apathy
Saudamini Pethe, a deaf law student, says that in the case of public transportation there are attitudinal barriers as the staff lack awareness and therefore behave impatiently. “Most of the time, Deaf are mocked at and made fun of for not being able to speak clearly. Other times their concession and free passes are not recognised, and they are made to get down from the buses unless they pay. Sometimes disabled reserved seating is also not given easily to deaf persons by fellow travellers because they don’t look disabled.”
Her thoughts are echoed by Tapas Bharadwaj, a visually impaired lawyer and Head of Inclusivity at Raindrops Foundation, who says that reforms in public transport must be accompanied by mass sensitisation efforts. Since he does not carry a white can or black glasses, people don’t notice his disability at the first go. “Many times when I travel by bus or Metro, people come and tap my shoulder to get up from the reserved seats. I have to tell them about my disability, and while I don’t mind doing so, it could be an unpleasant experience for many of my friends. People need to understand that not every disability is visible.”
Inaccessible Travel Information Hampers Trip Planning
From mobile apps and websites of transport agencies, to signages at bus and metro stations, lack of accessible information poses a significant hindrance for PWDs when it comes to trip planning. “Unless accessibility and disability rights become a part of the public discourse, policymakers and urban planners will not pay attention to our needs. How hard is it to add braille to emergency buttons in buses and other signages at bus stops?”, says Tapas.
He also adds that transport planners need to aim for universal design as the one-size-fits-all approach is not applicable in disability. For example, while a visually impaired passenger may benefit from an audio announcement, deaf commuters require real-time information through visual signages like LED displays.
Due to the information required for trip planning being inaccessible, independent travelling becomes difficult for PWDs. “Last minute announcements about change in platform number of the arrival of a train at the station are not accessible to deaf individuals. We often have to rely on the kindness of strangers during travel because there is no provision of sign language interpreters at any railway or bus station”, says Saudamini.
Digital technologies hold much promise to make travel more accessible and comfortable for PWDs, but the limitations need to be considered. For instance, most of the apps for cab or transport services require verification calls after registering – making deaf persons dependent on their hearing friends or passers-by for help. Saudamini suggests that the apps should provide an option for deaf users to send a selfie holding their ID card to reduce their stress of answering the phone and provide deaf-friendly services.
This is not to discount the potential that technologies like Mobility-as-a-Service (Maas) offer for integrated journeys across different modes of transport. MaaS platforms like mobile applications, if made accessible, can prove to be game-changers by allowing users to book their entire journey across different transit options at once. This would make their transfers more comfortable and save them the hassle of showing their documents at different transit stops to avail their disability benefits. India has started moving in the right direction with the One Nation One Card, also known as the National Common Mobility Card being launched in Ahmedabad in 2019. While the full-fledged roll-out of a MaaS like platform might take time in our country, international apps like Moovit are changing how PWDs travel. The app is not only fully accessible to persons with visual impairment, but it also invites crowd-sourced data on accessible stations, and allows an option for low-vision travellers to connect with volunteers of partner organisations.
However, most important is awareness and attitude change that needs to be initiated at all levels – from administrators and policymakers, to urban planners and engineers who design the street and pedestrian facilities, to transport operators and crew members responsible for making the journey comfortable. Transport planners and urban local bodies need to involve PWDs in the planning process and incorporate their lived experiences to provide better service for all.
Persons with disabilities don’t need our sympathy, but access to inclusive public spaces, infrastructure and transit systems to enjoy the rights guaranteed to them. This can only happen when we stop seeing disability from the lens of charity and start seeing it as a human rights issue. The availability of accessible transport, disabled-friendly washrooms, braille signage and sign language translators should not be seen as a luxury, but as a fundamental right. Only then can we achieve social justice in its truest sense.
 National Census of India, 2011 https://censusindia.gov.in/2011census/population_enumeration.html
 On The Move: Urban Travel Experiences of Persons with Disabilities, Ola Mobility Institute 2021