Does the Indian media really care about the disabled?

By Shruti Pushkarna

As I write this column with the intention of drawing attention to a large section of Indian population that lives on the margins of our society, I am thinking to myself: Does Anyone Care.

Does the media care? Do parents of ‘able’ children care? Do the politicians or bureaucrats care? Do schools and universities care? Do businesses care? Does the average individual care? And the resounding answer to all these questions is ‘probably not enough’. Not enough to bring about a revolutionary change in the way persons with disabilities lead their lives or how we treat them.

The other day I was at an event where mental illness and acid attack cases were being discussed. As I heard stories of survivors, of individuals and institutions working towards their rehabilitation, it occurred to me that people who are affected by the issue at some personal level are the only ones attempting to drive ‘change’. Their pain translates into a passion to alleviate the suffering of others.

While effective work continues to happen in small pockets of the country, we need mass campaigns to alter the mindsets of the vast population of over 1.3 billion. In his first term, Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced the ‘Accessible India’ campaign in December 2015. He issued a mandate to make public spaces, transport as well as information and technology ‘accessible’ to persons with disabilities.

Several audits have been conducted since and sadly we are far from becoming an ‘Accessible India’ or ‘Sugamya Bharat’. This when we are nearing the deadline of March 2020.

While I didn’t have much hope from the implementing agencies, especially the Indian bureaucracy (as in the government), I thought the powerful idea behind this nationwide campaign would have an impact on the mainstream media and people would become more aware of what is ‘inaccessible’.

But most of us don’t understand what the term ‘access’ means. Even today, most people think that giving access to a disabled individual starts and ends at constructing a ramp or providing a wheelchair.

While people with locomotor disabilities are dependent on ramps, wheelchairs and elevators, accessibility is not confined to these. There are 21 types of disabilities defined in the new Rights of Persons with Disabilities (RPWD) Act. And government and private players are supposed to ensure access to schools, tourist places, banks and other services, information, transportation, entertainment and employment for disabled people all across.

My own friends and ex-colleagues in the media have a limited understanding and like most Indians, they too think in terms of retrofitting solutions. It’s a shame that the media in this day and age of technology hasn’t bothered to get a clear picture of what remains inaccessible.

Like for orthopaedically impaired people, we think of wheelchair access. For the visually and hearing impaired, we think of Braille and sign language. And this is also mostly confined to the physical environment. People have no idea when it comes to digital access. We design for people like us, the ones we call ‘normal’ and we don’t cater to or even factor in all those who are different (or differently abled, as they are hence termed).

There are many mainstream media groups whose websites remain inaccessible to persons with any form of ‘print’ disability. I bet most people don’t even recognise this form of impairment. In 2016, the BJP government had launched an online accessible library for people with print disabilities, including the blind, so they could access books (like school textbooks, fiction, non-fiction) through a web portal. And yet leading dailies have inaccessible news websites and mobile apps.

A couple of weeks ago, surfing through TV channels, I noticed a news bulletin for the hearing impaired. A sign language interpreter who translated all the happenings of the hour in a form ‘accessible’ for anyone with a hearing impairment accompanied the news anchor.

Having one bulletin in a day to my mind is an ‘exclusive’ telecast. The idea of ‘access to all’ is based on the principle of inclusion. By giving access to one group like the hearing impaired, the content has not been made accessible for people with different kinds of disabilities. If we design and develop exclusively for a section of the population, integration into the mainstream society will remain an unrealised dream always.

As the RPWD Act states, for an inclusive and conducive environment, there is a need to make all forms of media accessible to every citizen, irrespective of their disability. This requires a major shift in our approach to creating for all.

Someone with a permanent disability doesn’t only use a ramp or a wheelchair. Anyone with an injury or a senior citizen might need access to the same things in different settings. A couple of years ago, a prominent shopping mall in the capital put huge flowerpots next to the handrails. I saw old people, children as well as the blind finding it difficult to reach the railing. That’s a classic example of lack of access and it’s not limited to one group.

In the same mall, a small staircase hampered the access to the washroom especially designed for wheelchair users. In another mall in Delhi NCR, there are braille signages inside the elevators for blind people’s ease of access. Given the recent Coronavirus scare, I wonder how many visually impaired people are willing to touch and feel the entire elevator wall before they can find the right button!

I have seen media reports in recent years announcing two railway stations, Mysore and Chandigarh, to have become completely accessible. They only talk of braille signages in a huge crowded public space. There are braille markings inside the train coaches for berths, toilets etc. The last time I rode on a train, I didn’t want to use the bathroom, let alone touching things inside it to locate the soap or the flush.

How can places and services claim to be ‘accessible’ when the understanding of the term is so blotchy? What will it take for the media to take responsibility of raising awareness about issues that impact our society?