Up against barriers

People with disabilities find it difficult to access services that most of us take for granted. Here are suggestions from them on making things better

Having access to education, a job, being able to open a bank account, to save, to take a loan — all these may appear as basic things available to all. But these simple services are still not within the reach of a sizeable population — persons with disability. Data from the 2011 census shows that the disabled population in India has increased at the rate of 2 per cent per year in the decade since 2011 and is about 26.8 million. This is 2.1 per cent of the country’s population.

Education is elusive

Economic progress, the first step to saving and financial security, is elusive due to lack of access to education. For instance, schools and colleges do not have support infrastructure, such as being wheelchair-accessible. “Unless the person with disability gets proper education it will be difficult for him or her to get a suitable job or pursue any profession/business,” says Chirag Chauhan, Co-Founder, Expertmile.com, and Founder, C A Chauhan & Co, Chartered Accountant. Chauhan had a spinal injury during the Mumbai train blast of 2006 and uses a wheelchair for mobility.

He says that most schools and colleges do not have separate washroom for wheelchair users. “The government should make this a part of all new institutions opened and also set a time frame for existing ones to build accessible washrooms,” he says.  

And so are jobs

Earning a living — be it through a job or self-employment — is not easy either. P Rajasekharan, co-founder of v-shesh, training provider for people with disabilities, says that often hearing-impaired graduates take up manual labour. “With a few process changes and a clearer understanding on what the job requires, employers are able to accommodate people with disability,” he says. The problem often is that of sensitisation, as there tend to be biases and information gap.

Self-employment has its share of issues too. Take the case of twins Sundarram and Sriram, affected by cerebral palsy. Their mother Radha Ramesh says that setting up a small unit to make leaf plates was not easy as they were not given a loan. “We pooled money and have been running operations for five years. Only now, on seeing good results and profit, are banks open to giving a loan of ₹2-3 lakh,” she rues.

Stumped by steps

Even for those with an income source, banking services continues to be a challenge. “My sons cannot have credit cards or cheque books in their name because they cannot sign,” she says. Their medical coverage is through a family cover as there is no way to get insurance for her sons. She laments that ATMs and net banking are difficult to comprehend, making banking difficult.

Access to bank is a problem for people with mobility, hearing or vision issues also. For example, banks may be located on the first floor without a lift; there could be steps leading up to the ATMs; one has to operate it at standing level and not at sitting level, making it impossible to do it from a wheelchair. “Hardly any bank branch or ATM is accessible. The last time I remember withdrawing cash from an ATM was at a mall,” says Chauhan.

There are also no special investment schemes for the disabled, to enable them to earn more interest or get favourable treatment. Why not create a deposit scheme, similar to Sukanya Deposit for a girl child, to offer, say, 10 per cent return on investments up to ₹20 lakh made by persons with disability?, asks Chauhan.   

Tech can act as bridge

But can’t technology help in improving access? Mohan Narayanan, CEO of Kubos Consulting, explains how he travels alone, makes presentations to students, runs a business and mentors many start-ups. “Narrator tools read out text and can be handy for those who cannot see. I have other gadgets to help with reading business cards. Such tools help you to overcome the problem, be confident and do more,” he says.

Narayanan says that since people with disability will likely know what they need, they must ask for the right features and support from others. “One has to take the initiative, only then others can help,” he says. He says that tools and services that can empower those with disability can be expensive. Also, there is not much readily available information. App and other software developers must also be sensitised to the needs of different types of users. For instance, apps can read out information, say, in the regional language. Radha Ramesh wishes that software, such as that for net banking, could be simplified using symbols so that more people can do online transactions.

Why not passbooks in Braille?

Getting around is another serious road block, that inhibits many from making use of services. For example, public transportation is not easy to take; ramps and wheelchair-accessible toilets may not be usable. Narayanan laments that ramps and other solutions are piecemeal and there is not enough thought given to how they will be used. “You may find yourself taking a ramp and walking down a few steps to get to where you want. What is the point?” he asks.

“Wheelchair-accessible toilets may have obstructions and sharp angles, making it impossible to make a turn,” says Rajasekharan. As a result, though money is spent, it does not serve those who were expected to benefit.

Rajasekharan points out that some microfinance institutions offer pass books (where loan payment information is recorded) in Braille. These simple things send the message that you are ready to be inclusive. Sensitising front line managers at financial institutions enables them to take decisions that promote inclusion.

Radha Ramesh says that if banks have one person who is sensitive to what people with special needs — disabled or old – want, it can create big changes. “If bank employees come home for the rich, why not for others with special needs?” she poses.

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